Steven Brust’s Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grill

3B50720B-1E6B-4EC1-93AF-A577CA410D47I’m a fiddler. I like Steven Brust. I love most any novel with folk music as a theme, particularly when musicians are the characters. So why the fuck did I find Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grill to be not even worth finishing? Good question — and one that I will answer in some detail. Perhaps more detail than this badly written novel deserves.

Now you must understand that it starts with one of the best openers I’ve ever encountered:

Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grill has the best matzo ball soup in the galaxy. Lots of garlic, matzo balls with just the right consistency to absorb the flavor, big chunks of chicken, and the whole of it seasoned to a biting perfection. One bowl, along with maybe a couple of tamales, will usually do for a meal. As for entertainment, Feng gets some of the best Irish musicians you’ll ever hear — good instrumental backing, fine singing, some stupendous fiddle playing, and driving energy. Hell, some of the songs are actually Irish.

Now, that should make for a decent enough background, given a decent plot, eh? You wish! Even Spider Robinson in his Callahan’s Bar series does a better job of letting the reader in on what’s going on, and that series has really awful novels in it from time to time. I’ve read and enjoyed nearly everything else Steven Brust has written, including his collaboration with Emma Bull, Freedom and Necessity. I figured this would be good too.

Indeed, nearly every Celtic musician I’ve known who liked fantasy has raved somewhat incoherently about Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grill. So when the reprint of this novel showed up in the Mail Room here at Green Man, I grabbed it immediately, and settled in to read late one afternoon. As time passed, I had the increasingly annoying feeling that I was missing something. And I mean really missing the point of this piece of dreck. So I kept going back and rereading previous chapters to see if I had actually missed something, thinking that I had overlooked what was going on. But no, I hadn’t. I put it down for a week, then a few months, and finally went back to it.

Finally, during this final attempt, I realized what was missing. This book has not a single bleedin’ character that I can even vaguely care about. Not one at all. Like Charles de Lint’s The Onion Girl, there are no sympathetic characters, so I can’t connect to the story. Jaime fucks a lot, but doesn’t love. Tom makes puns, badly. Rose drinks whiskey, a lot of it.

You get the idea. One reviewer said correctly that these are mannerisms masquerading as characters. I was hoping that folks attempting to bomb Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grill out of existence would succeed, to put me out of me misery. (Don’t ask what that has to do with the plot, as it won’t help. Nothing will.) Ignore this novel and write it off as something that Brust would have best tossed in the rubbish bin.

Badly drawn characters, badly thought-out plot, and bad use of a promising idea. That sums up Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grill. You’ve been warned!

(Ace, 1990)

Jack Merry

I'm a fiddler who plays in various bands including Chasing Fireflies, the Estate contradance band; I'm also the Estate Agent for everything music related including the tours our myriad musicians do elsewhere. My drink, or so my wife Brigid says, is anything liquid, but I like a good dark beer and a spritely cider most of all. Scotch-Irish by ancestry, my favoured music is Irish, Scottish and Nordic trad.

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