Almost immediately upon starting War for the Oaks, I had an overwhelming feeling that reading this book was like finding a story that had just been waiting for me to discover it. And this book was written in 1987, the year my little sister was born, so it’s been waiting quite a while. I wish I had discovered it earlier. It was by no means a perfect read, but it was so absorbing and comforting and fun that I almost had no choice but to give it the full five stars. (My friend SJ, whose review prompted me to finally pick this book up, has a more personal take on it over here, where she writes that reading it feels like coming home.)
War for the Oaks is the story of musician Eddi McCandry, newly freed from dumping both her boyfriend and his band on the same night. Walking home that night she is accosted by a mysterious man and a large black dog, who turns out to be the same person: a fae creature called a phouka. He’s a shapeshifter, and he’s chosen Eddi as the human representative in the coming faerie war. Whether she wants to represent them or not doesn’t matter. The Seelie and Unseelie courts are going to fight, and they need the presence of mortal blood to insure the war will matter — without mortal blood on the battlefield, the fae are immortal, and any victory or defeat would have little to no effect on the power struggle between the two courts. And somehow, Minneapolis has become the center of this pre-arranged battle between the two sides. The outcome of this war will affect the balance of the world for thousands of years to come.
Eddi’s new role means she needs a fae bodyguard, a position which the phouka fills with sass and smart assery. And in the meantime, Eddi realizes that she needs a job, and instead of taking another position in a shitty cover band, or going to work 9-5, she takes the chance that she can make something great. She and her former bandmate Carla start their own band, recruiting a keyboard player, a bass player, and a guitar player. And they’re really good. And somehow, the fate of the band and the fate of the fae become intertwined, so that basically by the end (highlight to reveal spoiler), Eddi and the Fey are quite literally playing rock and roll to save the world.
The wonderful thing about all of this is that as silly as the premise sounds, Emma Bull completely pulls it off because of her execution. Her prose is perfect: not to flowery, lots of sass, and yet there are moments that are so perfect they made me want to squeal. And the way she writes about music, man. She just gets it. There are some writers who just write with music built into the rhythm of their words, and she’s one of them. There’s also a love story in here, although it’s by no means the focus. She builds up their relationship like a musician builds a melody.
It’s interesting to read this book now, so far removed from the eighties. At the time, this must have felt timely, but now it feels nostalgic — almost quaint. This book, as mentioned in the title, is also one of (if not the very first) urban fantasy books. I find this sort of hilarious. Urban fantasy isn’t my thing most of the time. That sort of ethereal, magical quality that I love about fantasy, where things are out of place or time, and the world doesn’t feel quite itself, is nearly always replaced in contemporary urban fantasy with the same played out settings, the same played out creatures and monsters, and the same played out badass heroines. What they’re missing is the soul. This book has soul out the wazoo. And even despite the rushed pace of the ending, I can see myself returning to it over and over. I can see this becoming a favorite.
If you’re a fantasy fan, or a music lover, and you have somehow not read this book, I highly recommend.