War for the Oaks is widely considered to be the establishing foundation of the urban fantasy genre. Setting a war between the Seelie and Unseelie (or, Light and Dark) Courts of the Fae in modern-day Minneapolis (or, at least, modern in 1987, when this was written,) Emma Bull established a paradigm. One: in contemporary times, in recognizable places, there are intersecting magical realms and accompanying magical beings that are invisible to most humans. Two: certain humans have an aptitude for magic, even if they haven’t realized it yet or aren’t even aware that it exists. Three: you have a snarky, lively female protagonist who is reasonably self-confident but probably still undervalues her physical attractiveness or general appeal.
And so, in War for the Oaks, we have Eddi McCandry, a rock guitarist and singer who has just broken up with her boyfriend, quit his band, and finds herself mysteriously selected by the Seelie Court to play a pivotal role in their upcoming war against the Unseelie. Her tour guide into the world of the Fae is the Phouka, a humanoid fae who also shapeshifts into a dog and is a whimsical trickster type. Other key players include Carla, her best friend, and new bandmates Dan, Hedge, and Willy.
I had several issues with this book, most of which are rather superficial but cumulatively did reduce my overall favor toward the book. First, while I think I could have really enjoyed the musical setting of the story, the descriptions of Eddi and her bandmates’ playing came off very second-year creative writing major to me: overlong, overwrought, and oh-my-god why the transcription of all of the cheesy rock lyrics? This is a problem not just because of the general cheese-factor, but because at least one key plot point hinges on the band’s concerts, and when the concert reads like amateur fanfiction wankery, it loses a lot of impact. Second problem, similar to the first: Bull is way, way overly verbose about everyone’s outfits. Each outfit in this book gets about a paragraph dedicated to it. It’s tiresome, and again, cheesy. Possibly this is her style, or a product of it being of the 80’s, I can’t say, but JUST STOP for frak’s sake. A third issue is that the battle scenes, as written, were difficult to follow. I never got a good sense of how the scene was laid out or a clear picture of the geography, which was frustrating when Eddi is running down another hill to some river but still has a clear picture of the battle happening on the other side of the hill? Don’t ask me, I’m lost.
There is also a discussion to be had about Eddi as a female protagonist and how she forms much of the basis for those who followed in the genre. It’s a long discussion and I don’t feel particularly up to the task of unpacking every aspect of it, but here are some stray thoughts.
- I loved that Bull gave Eddi a great supporting best female friend and that neither of them were female chauvinists, i.e. they didn’t engage in putting down other women to build themselves up. Unfortunately, this is something that does seem to happen in a lot of UF.
- As much as I have vowed to retire the concept of “Mary Sue” from my reviews forever (because it means something different to everyone and has essentially lost all meaning,) Eddi is what I would consider to be my version of a poster-girl Mary Sue. She never makes any kind of mistake or error that she ever has to learn from. She, as a human, is imbued with a strong magical ability, or glamour, that makes listening to her music something like a supernatural experience for regular human audience members. All of the fae who she meets are surprised to be impressed by her, as if they didn’t expect much from their human pawn in the war but there is something ~*special*~ about her. She knows how to ride a motorcycle. As a civilian, she negotiates with the leading rulers of both Fae courts as their equal and neither are particularly offended by this because she has all kinds of compassion and good sense that apparently no one else does. None of this made me like her any less, exactly, but it’s just that over time when everything goes right for the protagonist it takes tension out of the story.
- She is certainly an “active” protagonist who drives the plot instead of letting it happen to her, which is good.
- Her ex-boyfriend is literally physically abusive and strikes her, and while that causes one of the other male characters to leap to her defense, Eddi herself brushes it off in a strangely blase fashion and it’s never mentioned again.
- Back to the “she’s so special” thing: Eddi’s ultimate victories come courtesy of her magic, which is by end still a mystery even to her. People around her all tell her that she’s casting glamour, and that she has this special quality, but it’s not something that she really controls or defines. It’s a small point, but it still strikes me as ‘unfortunate’ that in this story, the woman’s power still lies in how other people perceive her, and not in something that is derived from her own agency.
I’m giving a lot more to this one than I give to most UF, which probably has something to do with a tendency to treat classics more reverently and dedicate a lot more careful critique to them. And if this is the definable classic godmother of UF, then I will devote more time to thinking it over. While I spent more time discussing the ‘cons’ here than the aspects of the book I specifically liked, I’ll just wrap up by saying that I definitely do recommend it to UF fans who haven’t read it yet. It’s a good story with likeable characters and it does deserve to be given its due as an originator.