I am embarrassed about how long it took me to discover Emma Bull. This smart, versatile fantasy author is responsible for some really smart and thoughtful fantasy novels, like Territory (review coming soon) and Freedom and Necessity (which she co-wrote with Steven Brust, and which I will have to review at some point). War for the Oaks, first published in 1987, is probably her best-known novel and is the one most Bull fans told me I absolutely had to read.
Talented Minneapolis rock singer Eddi McCandry has just decided to break it off with her boyfriend Stuart and his band, InKline Plain. But that’s not the worst thing that will happen to her on the night the novel opens. In between leaving band practice and returning home, Eddi will be drawn into a war between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts of Faerie. The immortals need a mortal present on the battlefield in order to shed blood. For reasons that aren’t immediately clear, Eddi is the Seelie Court’s choice.
I have to be honest: during the first couple of chapters I wasn’t quite sure why War for the Oaks had received such rave reviews. I was enjoying the book but wasn’t finding it as extraordinary as other readers had indicated. Part of my problem, I think, is that I generally don’t find faeries very interesting. Gorgeous immortals who speak in obnoxious riddles and think humans are beneath them? Yawn. Eddi’s ubiquitous new protector, the annoyingly glib phouka, starts out as the epitome of everything I don’t like about Faerie-themed stories.
But then something interesting happens — actually, a lot of interesting things. First, Eddi starts a new band. Second, she falls hard for the charismatic Willy Silver, the new band’s guitarist. Third, the phouka’s attitude towards Eddi, and his treatment of her, begins to shift in important ways, which makes Eddi’s interactions with the Faerie courts much more interesting. By the halfway mark of the book I was hooked, and at the three-quarters mark I couldn’t put it down.
One of the things I liked best about War for the Oaks was how deeply music permeates the world of the novel and how effectively Bull evokes the atmosphere of the musical performances in the book. Eddi’s status as a rare talent is handled deftly and interestingly. Some books about artists tend to ramble on and on and on about how amazing and special the main character is, without actually giving us any evidence that would make us believe in the protagonist’s talent.* But Bull manages to show us Eddi’s gifts, subtly yet convincingly. You believe in her talent as a performer and in her ability to manage and lead a band.
Despite the slow start, I ended up loving this book. It’s an atmospheric, slightly gritty, but sweetly romantic urban fantasy with a great main character. But be forewarned: you’ll find yourself building late-80s-rock playlists long before this book is over!
Rating: Buy it
* The all-time worst offender in this category is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.