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Review: COWBOY FENG’S SPACE BAR AND GRILLE by Steven Brust

posted on April 9, 2007 at 9:15 pm · filed under Reviews

Steven Brust is awesome – he’s most well-known for his bread and butter, a series of novels loosely based on Hungarian folklore set in the fantasy world of Dragaera, but when he ventures outside that realm he inevitably takes a wonderful concept and executes it perfectly. Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille is no exception. And it’s set in a time-traveling bar, and revolves around a group of folk-musicians who play a lot of Irish music. Curious? Read on for the full review…

Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille begins with a disoriented narrator attempting to remember exactly what’s going on, after – you quickly learn – the pub in which his Irish folk-music band plays regular sets has teleported from a colony on Mars (after an atomic explosion) to an unknown location further in the future and further from the green hills of Earth, where he began his unwilling oddyssey in the 20th century.

From that point on, the plot thickens.

Cowboy Feng’s is a modern sci-fi classic written by Steven Brust and published by Ace in 1990. After languishing in out-of-printdom for way too long, it has been reissued as of 2003 and is widely available at the book seller of your choice. And I strongly recommend that you pick it up, as it’s absolutely worth it.

The book is told in an almost episodic format, with chapters alternating between the far future’s desperate attempt to save itself, and the present day (future to us, for the record) happenings at the nominal “Bar and Grille”. Rather obviously, it turns out they’re connected. Discovering exactly HOW they’re connected is a complicated, surprising, full of twists and turns, heartbreaking, uplifting, and delightfully witty process that doesn’t take up much of your time, as the book’s relatively short (where I come from, ~300 pages is standard length, so at ~200, Cowboy Feng’s is a quick read; your opinion may differ).

The meat of the story is provided by Billy, who starts things off and generally owns narration throughout the present-day stuff. There are also a number of little “vignettes” that take place in the past (mostly on 20th century Earth, where the bulk of the characters are actually from) that sort of color in the gaps and provide depth to the rest of the people working at the bar. The result is a book that manages to deliver a consistent sense of personality while still offering all the pluses of an omniscient narrator. Billy’s a delightful character, but he has his issues, and so does everyone else in the book – much like everyone in real life.

Steven Brust is always a good read – Agyar is perhaps his most satisfying novel on an artistic level, his Vlad Taltos series (and the related Phoenix Guards series) are his most commercially successful works, but this one holds a special place in my heart for a number of reasons. It’s Brust’s sole work of science-fiction, for one. He’s a fantasy author by trade, with one possible exception outside of Cowboy Feng’s (an epistolary novel co-written with Emma Bull called Freedom and Necessity which takes place in the 18th century) and I happen to be a fan of sci-fi, and a fan of seeing his approach to same.

Also, the first scene consists of a group of itinerant folk-music players downing whiskey and playing a few tunes in an attempt to come to grips with the fact that they’re light-years and centuries away from the world they grew up in. That’s exactly how you SHOULD deal with that situation, but the “get drunk and play music” approach to problem-solving is far too rarely applied either in fiction or in life.

Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille is highly recommended to fans of contemporary fiction, fantasy and/or sci-fi, folk-music, booze, conspiracy theories, and everyone else in the world with decent taste. And if you can explain to me why the word “sugarbear” is used as it is, I will personally buy you a drink at the bar of your choice on the evening of your choice.

Steven Brust’s Homepage (maintained by the author; he even answers emails, sometimes – he answered one of mine)

Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grille at Amazon.com

Other recommended books by Steven Brust:
Agyar
The Phoenix Guards
Brokedown Palace
The Gypsy

— devlocke

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