War for the Oaks Review
Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks is often considered the founding work of Urban Fantasy (aka Modern Fantasy or Magical Realism), and it’s easy to see why. Aside from being a damn good read, it takes all the elements you’d expect from a fairy tale and weaves them skillfully with lovingly rendered descriptions of downtown Minneapolis. The places are real; you can visit them, they look and feel just as she says, and as a consequence you can very easily believe that everything Bull describes happened right there and just like that.
As the title suggests, the tale centers around conflict, in this case between the seelie and unseelie Courts for control of Minneapolis. (The oaks, however, are metaphorical; if any are mentioned in the book, it is only in passing. It’s not even certain that oaks are the predominant tree in Minneapolis, though it can easily be argued that “War for the Ashes” would have a far different connotation and “War for the Maples” just doesn’t sound as cool.)
The Fae’s primary problem is that, as immortals, they are notoriously hard to kill and often make war for sport. To ensure that both sides abide by the outcome of the battles, they must bind a human to the cause, thus bringing bring the power of mortality to the battlefield and elevating the dispute from the typical bloodless territorial squabble. Enter Eddi McCandry, out-of-work wannabe rockstar and reluctant hero drafted to a cause that, she hadn’t realized existed. Her life turns into a strange duality: under attack by the unseelie court, who are none too fond of this bloodshed-in-battle idea; under guard by a seelie phouka who is mischievous and eloquent by turns, all the while she’s trying to start a new band so she can do mundane things like pay the rent and buy groceries. The two aspects of her life refuse to stay separate, though. Try as she might, she can’t keep her friends free of the conflict, and not only does her musical life begin to seep into her interactions with the Fae, the Fae begin to creep into her band as well.
As one might expect with a book written about a band, there are a lot of descriptions of the music. It’s easy to start skimming the text as soon as someone picks up a guitar, but the subtle changes in description are the primary means by which the author conveys development in not only the dynamic between the band members, but in Eddi’s mood and newfound abilities. More distracting is the frequent dropping of song titles, which can be off-putting to anyone not familiar with pop hits of the 1980’s. Eddi’s original lyrics are rendered in full, but without the tune to go with them, they feel a little flat. (Thankfully there’s a cure for that: the author recorded them with the now-defunct band Cats Laughing, and through the wonders of Amazon MP3, they can be found on their album Another Way to Travel and are quite good. It’s easy to see why the Fae picked Eddi.)
There are also a lot of descriptions of clothing; nearly every character receives an account of what they’re wearing whenever they show up (or change clothes mid-scene). To those who are interested in fashion, this is a nice touch; to others it might seem excessive. In either case, most of the clothes are very dated, which anchors the tale firmly to the 1980’s. No airy “long-ago-and-far-away” for this story.
Where the author shines most is her description of magic. Her rendering of the denizens of both courts is wholly believable, and somehow she makes them seem ancient, yet not at all out-of-place in the modern setting in which they find themselves. With the host of legends at her disposal, Bull picks just enough detail from just enough different Fae creatures to lend a sense of the diversity of their ilk without becoming overwhelming. Nor are they the cute critters you’d find in Disney movies and romantic poems; at her first meeting, Eddi describes them as creatures with their roots in horror films… and those are the good guys. Bull also gives a good primer on the hows and whys of Fae culture; if you’ve ever wondered why you shouldn’t thank them or what you ought to require as surety before going alone to speak with the Queen of Air and Darkness, you’ll have your answer right from the horse’s (er, phouka’s) mouth.
Neither is her magic limited to the immortal members of her cast. The city itself is alive, and Bull’s descriptions of it are breathtakingly beautiful. You can feel the change in current of a place from day to night, imagine how one performance spot has an entirely different energy than another, smell the greenery of the Conservatory by moonlight. Even if you’ve lived there for years, reading her descriptions makes you see the city with new eyes. In her essay “Wonders of the Invisible World” in Double Feature, Bull comments:
Minnehaha Falls and Central Park are not interchangeable, in substance or spirit. Walking down Hennepin Avenue on a Friday evening calls up a different set of emotions and attitudes than walking down any given street in Manhattan. And the mix of attitudes and influences-parks and punks, the New Riverside Café and 7th Street Entry, a wildly active music scene in well-mannered, well-ordered metropolitan surroundings-only happens here. People outside the Twin Cities may say what they like. I can’t think why the high courts of Faerie would want to live anywhere else.
And after reading War for the Oaks, the reader can’t help but agree.
***Author’s note: War for the Oaks was translated into a screen play, which I believe is included in newer versions of the book. It was partially filmed with local talent and the trailers are on YouTube for the curious, although they’re very B-fantasy due to constraints of both budget and the technology of the time. It is perhaps a mercy that it was never finished, as special effects have advanced to a point where it could now be filmed in a style that’s much more true to the book’s lovely descriptions. Hopefully someone in Hollywood will pick it up and do it justice. With the recent popularity of fantasy in cinematography, there’s certainly the audience for it.
In 1994 Meghan Brunner auditioned for the Minnesota Renaissance Festival—and things haven’t been the same for her since. Over a decade later, with two books and a Unicorn Award*, she’s still picking up speed… and loving it.
*lifetime achievement award for entertainers at the MN Renaissance Festival
Find her free short story, “The Tithe”, earlier in Fae Awareness Month 2012.