Once Upon a Time, there was no urban fantasy. Then, there was Emma Bull and her novel War For The Oaks. Take note, Bitches, this is how to popularize (and, in fact, she’s widely credited as having invented) a genre. If you like urban fantasy, urban paranormal romance, and pretty much anything else that involves supernatural creatures in a city, you owe a big thank you to Emma Bull. Lord knows, I personally owe a big thanks to Emma, without whom I would not have spent the last 24 years saying things like, “A big rock”, “hanging arse up in gorseberry bushes, whist’ling pop’lar songs”, and, “You know, she got a little fey, and we just drifted apart” to the utmost confusion of those around me.
Here’s the part of the review where I try to sum up the plot without giving too much away, and let me just tell you that this plot synopsis is playing merry hell with my spell checker. The Seelie Court (that’s faeries, of course) is at war with the Unseelie Court. They want a real war, with real death, and since they are immortal, they can only get actual carnage by binding a mortal to their cause (it’s all very folklorish). So, they assign the phouka (a man who changes into a black dog) to pick out a mortal and then to guard her until the battles are concluded. The phouka, who never does get a name, selects Eddi McCandry, a struggling Minneapolis musician. Eddi, however, has a mind of her own and refuses to be an unthinking pawn in the Court’s endless games. Much mayhem ensues including humor, adventure, tragedy, magic, music, and the most swoonworthy of romances.
One reason War for the Oaks works so well is that Emma grounded all that Seelie stuff by following the age-old advice to “write what you know”. Emma actually did front a rock band in Minneapolis for a long time, and so the setting, and the process of leading a band, come across as absolutely real. People don’t just wander around saying mystical things – they eat, they drink coffee, they go to Denny’s. They worry about rent and they lug heavy speakers up and down stairs and they practice and practice and practice their craft of music in a rehearsal space that lacks air conditioning. I’ve never been to Minneapolis but I would swear that I’ve been to the crappy bar, the restaurant with the “weird vegetarian eggplant food”, and those wonderful dance clubs and parks, because they are so perfectly described. Then the fantasy elements are seamlessly integrated, and you wind up seeing the realistic setting with an overlay of magic almost without noticing the transition. And what an overlay of magic! This was the first book I read with such a terrifying and glorious assemblage of otherworldly folk. There are majestically lovely nobles straight from stories like Tam Lin or the Lady of the Lake, and there are crazy creatures that will be familiar to Brian Froud fans. Some things are ugly, some lovely, but nothing is cute. As Eddi’s friend Carla says about one creature, “It wasn’t Tinkerbelle, honey. I’m never gonna watch “Peter Pan” again”.
Speaking of Carla, the friendship between Eddi and Carla is awesome. We should all have a friend like Carla. She’s fiercely loyal, she’s funny, she’s talented, she has a pretty great romance of her own, and it’s made quite clear that without her business savvy Eddi would still be playing at the crappy bar, or some variation thereof. Carla and Eddi talk and act and feel like real people, and so does everyone else, even the people that aren’t, strictly speaking, people. All the characters shine and all the dialogue sparkles with intelligence and wit. I could easily fill this review just by listing one great line after another. Every emotion feels authentic, so when tragedy strikes, you don’t feel manipulated. The phouka specializes in erratic and confusing behavior, but he makes such a point of it that his inconsistencies are in character and not just random whims of the author. After reading this book at least once a year for the past fourteen years, I know these people. They may be imaginary, but they feel like friends.
And OMG the clothes! Why, why, why don’t I have these clothes? The phouka is able to summon his outfits from the air – and what outfits they are. The idea of being able to magically summon a Victorian brocade dressing gown makes me woozy with envy. Eddie does not have such sartorial advantages, but apparently she is the queen of vintage thrift store shopping. Some outfits are selected for practicality (jeans, a turtleneck, and a sweater for a cold night in the park), which I appreciate. But she wears this one dress to a dance that I have been looking for my entire adult life. I have almost no interest in fashion, I never wear anything except jeans and T-shirts, and I still think I would seriously consider committing a felony to own any of the outfits described in this book, with the exception of the white pants (it is set in the ‘80s, after all – they can’t all be winners).
The discerning reader of this review will have guessed that Eddi and the phouka develop a certain frisson of interest between them. They are one of my favorite couples of all time, because they have passion to burn but they also have a strong base of friendship and mutual respect. As the book progresses, they move from being adversaries to becoming partners, and a lot of this process has to do with the phouka becoming truthful with Eddi, to the point of helping her see through the glamour that the Seelie Court seeks to impose on her. Even when they are at cross-purposes, Eddi and the phouka never underestimate each other. They both have their own areas of expertise and the phouka doesn’t pretend to be an expert on music, or, indeed, pretty much any aspect of Eddi’s mortal world, just as she admits complete ignorance of the supernatural world. They learn from each other because they are both willing to admit ignorance, and that implies a certain setting aside of pride that I admire. I am a total sucker for the mutual respect/mutual honesty trope in real life and in fiction so of course Eddi and the phouka make my heart all fluttery. Incidentally, for those who are looking for more diverse romances, the phouka is described as having dark brown skin and curly black hair, Dan, the keyboardist, is African American, Carla is Italian American, and the remaining main characters are very British-Isles ethnic looking.
In short (too late) I just can’t imagine anyone not liking War For the Oaks. It has everything you could possibly want in a book except pirates and space ships – and the phouka wears a sort of piratey ruffled shirt at one point so that partially covers the pirate angle. It’s funny, it’s sad, it’s thought – provoking, and did I mention that it is sexy as hell? With all those significant glances and enigmatic statements and, oh yeah, some really hot, if not extremely explicit, sex? Just go read it; if you combine it with some good coffee and some good songs in the background, I can almost guarantee you the perfect day.