Book Review

War for the Oaks by Emma Bull: A Guest Review by Carrie S


Title: War for the Oaks
Author: Emma Bull
Publication Info: Ace 1987
ISBN: 9780765300348
Genre: Urban Fantasy

Book Cover 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.

War for the Oaks is available from Amazon | BN | Powell’s | Book Depository. I was unable to find a digital copy available.

Comments are Closed

  1. Sandra says:

    I’m a big Steven Brust fan, so I’ve been peripherally aware of Emma Bull for years, but I never read any of her stuff. Thanks to this great review, I’m going to expand my horizons.

  2. I have this ebook, and am definitely moving it into my “read soonest” file on my ereader.

  3. Merrian says:

    I read this back in the day and love it just the same as you do. Another book fromthat era I lvoe is RA Macevoy’s ‘Tea with the Black Dragon’. Looking back over the many years and books I still love how ut us furebdsguo tgat makes these worlds rock and saves the day and wonder how UF in particularl seemed to give up on this with ie’s lone, loner, lonely heroines.

  4. Merrian says:

    obviously I was typing with my my eyes close and my fingers crossed – sorry for that. I think I was trying to say ‘… how it is friendship that makes these worlds rock and saves the day and wonder how UF in particular seemed to give up on this with it’s line, loner, lonely heroines

  5. LizW65 says:

    This sounds great!  I think I’ll get my sister a copy for her birthday coming up in a few weeks.  And second the love for Tea With the Black Dragon—that was one I picked up in college in the 80’s because I loved the cover, and it turned out to be fantastic.  A very subtle use of magic in a (then) modern setting, written at a time when personal computing was just starting to come into vogue.

  6. helen says:

    I went right to bn to purchase it and It is not available in e-book format. DRAT!

  7. DS says:

    Yes, Tea with the Black Dragon and lots of books and stories by Charles de Lint.  Also I really enjoyed the Borderland shared world anthologies (Borderland, Life on the Border and Bordertown). (out of print and fairly expensive now) Terri Windling was one of the editors   She’s brilliant when it comes to fantasy anthologies.

  8. DS says:

    Also does anyone know what happened to Wen Spencer?  She had some good shapeshifter urban fantasy books in the early 00’s.

  9. Miss_Thing says:

    I flove this book!  I remember how excited I was to find it when it first came out and it still stands the test of time.  I also really enjoyed her more recent book “Territory,” which mixes sorcery and the old west. I was hoping for a sequel.  I’ll have to check out “Tea with the Black Dragon.”  I also love all of the Terri Windling anthologies and wish she’d write another standalone novel.  “The Wood Wife” is one of my favorites.

  10. Sarah W says:

    You had me at phouka.

    And Tea with the Black Dragon is, IMHO, one of the best stories out there.  I have one preciouspaperback copy, high up on my shelves next to The Grey Horse, which is another brilliant MacAvoy and the next best thing to visiting Ireland.

  11. cleo says:

    Thanks for the great review and the memories.  I loved, loved War for the Roses back when it was truly contemporary.  It’s one of those books that imprinted itself on me – I haven’t read it in years and didn’t realize how much I remembered until I read your review.  It took me awhile to warm to other Emma Bull books because I really just wanted more like that one and she didn’t write another set in that world (that I know of).  But once I got over myself, I enjoyed Territory.

    I also love Charles de Lint, and in my head I associate a lot of his 80s books with War for the Roses – such as Yarrow and Drink Down the Moon.  They have a similar vibe and a sweet romance, as well as believable friendships, and that sense of being rooted in reality, even with various fey creatures running amok.

  12. Awesome review. I have long loved this book, and as mentioned earlier, the series of Borderland anthologies.  If you can find them, they are great reads and a really nice add-on to “War for the Oaks.”  Her novel, “Finder” is set in the Borderland’s world and I definitely recommend it.

  13. H. Vert says:

    Oh my goodness, thank you for the reminder of Tea with the Black Dragon!  Such good memories of that book.

    War for the Oaks just got put on my TBR list. 🙂

  14. Brian says:

    Awesome book.

    Really strange that it can’t be purchased as an ebook, especially since it was an ebook freebie from Tor/Orb a few years ago when they were first launching

  15. Allison says:

    I have LOVED this book for years! Seeing your review makes me think I have to reread it again!

  16. Kifah says:

    I regularly re-read this book because I love it so freak’n much!  Also a Steven Brust fan.

    Random trivia:  Cat’s Laughing (Emma Bull and Steven Brust’s band) appeared in an X-Men comic.  I just about fell over when I saw them in the little comic book box on the page rocking out.  And Kitty Pride spent the rest of the book running around in a Cat’s Laughing T-shirt.

    I’m such a geek.

  17. P. Kirby says:

    Oh. My. Dog!  My favorite, all-time romance being discussed here on one of my fave blogs.

    Yeah.  I know. It’s not “Romance.”  I have a half-written blog post sitting on my desktop, discussing just this book and why it’s my idea of the perfect romance novel, but this review covers many of those issues: the friendship between Eddi and Carla; the manner in which Eddi and phouka’s relationship gets to develop; the little details of day-to-day life.

    When I get in a reading slump, War for the Oaks is one of my go-to-novels for shaking off the “blehs.”

  18. Lovecow2000 says:

    I adore this book!  A few years back Tor/Baen gave away free e-copies of War for the Oaks among other titles.

    Sadly, we can no longer get a copy for free or in e-form, but if you want some other lovely reads check it out:

  19. Chris says:

    I love this book! I live in the same neighborhood as Eddi, and Emma did a brilliant job with it and all the other Minneapolis locations of the time… many of which are now sadly gone. And I have the great good fortune to have a signed copy of the book (and several of Emma’s Flash Girls cds). Ahhh. 🙂

  20. bungluna says:

    I read this book way back when and enjoyed it very much.  Now I’m off to look for the “Tea” book, which sounds like my kind’a book.  As for Wen Spencer, she’s writing a sequel to “Wolf Who Rules” but there’s no publication date on it yet.

  21. Kristina says:

    I tried finding this book last year based on a rec. My library doesn’t carry it. My local UBS didn’t have a copy. It’s not available as an ebook and the paperback is really expensive. Why make it so hard to find a book? Would love to see this epub’d.

  22. Chris says:

    Kristina: I can a number of really cheap copies of the book at, if that helps.

  23. Wylykat says:

    always thought charles de lint was the one who started the genre.

  24. DS:

    The Bordertown anthologies were indeed things of wonder.  And more wondrous still, there is a brand new one—Welcome to Bordertown—due out toward the end of the month.  (There were also a handful of associated novels, including Emma Bull’s own Finder, and a later anthology/guidebook, The Essential Bordertown.)

  25. Carrie S says:

    I am so excited about Welcome to B – it’s supposed to be an anthology of pieces by younger writers who grew up with the first Bordertown Books as well as some of the best known early contributors – Emma Bull is doing a story, Holly Black, Neil Gaiman – better than Xmas. 

    @Wylykat – DeLint, who is also awesome, is a contemp of Emma Bull’s and I think they were/are friends.  My impression is War for the Oaks came out slightly before his urban fantasy novels did, but certainly regardless of who wrote what first he is an incredibly pivotal figure in the genesis of UF.  He is also doing a story for WtB, yay! 

    I have Tea for Dragons on hold from the library now – can’t wait!

  26. EC Spurlock says:

    Thank you for this. Emma Bull is such a fantabulous writer I wish she would publish more books. I actually have an ARC of this that I got at World Fantasy Con when it first came out; it got shuffled away in my boxes of books when I moved shortly after and I did not actually read it until I stumbled across it about six years ago. Boy do I regret not finding it sooner! As soon as I spotted Territory I grabbed that sucker and did not let it out of my hands until I finished it—and then I wished I was still reading it, it was that good.

    Also thanks for the mention of Tea With the Black Dragon (the sequel, Twisting the Rope, was unfortunately not quite as good) and The Grey Horse; Roberta MacAvoy is another one of those great authors who does not have nearly enough of a backlist for my taste. Oolong was just such a wonderful character. I love that both she and Bull create strong women whose power is in their self-confidence, so they can kick ass in their own way but still be very female.

  27. Katherine says:

    I have not read this, but any book that can be compared favorably with “Tea with the Black Dragon” is a MUST READ for me and is now on my Library “hold” list. I agree that “Twisting the Rope” was not quite as good, but still worth reading. I also enjoyed “The Book of Kells” and “The Grey Horse” quite a lot.

    I’m going to have to re-read TWtBD now so I can yearn for a love like Oolong and chuckle over all the antique computer references (anyone remember BASIC?).

  28. Chelsea says:

    I’m kind of ashamed to admit that I’ve never heard of this. It sounds awesome though. Thanks for the review!

  29. On timelines: in fact, Charles de Lint’s Moonheart—which I still think is his best work, and is certainly the most specific precursor among his works of today’s “urban/paranormal” fantasy genre—predated War for the Oaks by about three years; the former appeared in 1984, while Bull’s novel made its debut in 1987.  I’d count Bull and de Lint in general, and these two books in particular, as the co-progenitors of the modern paranormal genre.

    It should be noted that de Lint’s early novels for Ace are in a slightly different vein from his later/more recent work; the early books more closely resemble War for the Oaks by presenting overtly magical characters and plots in modern settings, whereas what I’ve read of his “Newford” cycle is considerably more subtle and less grounded in fairy tale and myth.  (I’d also point out Seanan McGuire’s “Toby Daye” series from DAW as one of the relatively few modern paranormal cycles I’ve seen that really goes back and recaptures the niftiness of what Bull and de Lint were doing back in the late ‘80s.)

  30. Karen says:

    I love this book!!!!!  Had to add that 😀

  31. Chris says:

    John: I’d add Megan Lindholm’s Wizard of the Pigeons (1986) to that list.

  32. Quill says:

    I adore this book—in fact, I have a playlist of the songs.  Cats Laughing did the original stuff, but it’s hard to find. 

    I would also highly, highly recommend her Falcon, which is twisty and charming and oh so bittersweet, and (my favorite) Bone Dance, an amazing post-apocalyptic story.  The latter has no romance per se, but is totally worth the read—and hides a secret that took me quite a while to figure out!

  33. Yes! One of my favorite reads EVER. I’ve re-read War for the Oaks at least every couple of years since … um, highschool.  🙂  Thanks for bringing this seminal and fabulous story to the attention of the Bitchery! More love for Emma Bull~

  34. On one hand, I liked Wizard of the Pigeons very much indeed (by contrast, on the couple of occasions I’ve tried the author’s fantasy cycles under her “Robin Hobb” byline, I have found them darned near unreadable). 

    OTOH, the trouble with regarding WotP as influential is that insofar as one can tell, only about thirteen people bought the book—which was one of the reasons that Lindholm was forced to re-invent herself as Hobb.

  35. Estara says:

    Yes, this exactly! The only addendum I would make is that Charles de Lint is a contemporary of Emma Bull and was writing his Newport stories even then, so I personally credit both of them (and Terry Windling with the Bordertown anthologies) of firming up the idea of urban fantasy.

    Charles de Lint still regularly releases stories and novels in his Newport universe. Emma Bull’s solo stories in other fantasy & sf genres are just as strong, but the only other urban fantasy she wrote were novels in the Bordertown universe.

    I especially love Bone Dance (post-apocalyptic sf done right) and Falcon (space opera done right).

  36. Cerulean says:

    I’ve picked up and put down this book for years. I’ll pick it up and read it now!

  37. I think I agree with you point by point on this book, it’s an A+ for me, too, one of my old favorites that I love to re-read.  The phouka is such a great character.

  38. A few years back a friend of mine told me I MUST read this. I searched the bookstores and found a copy in a ubs and devoured it.
    I ran into Emma once and went all fangirl on her over this book.

    I love to share books with my friends and usually have no problem lending them. There are one or two that I make people sign in blood for before they get the book. This is one of them.

  39. Merrian says:

    @ Chris & @ John
    I must be one of the 13 people who bought Wizard of Pigeons then and like you still remember it fondly – it is probably the first book that I would categorise in the ‘Seattle’ sub-genre of UF.  I also think Moonheart is my favourite de Lint book too. I didn’t enjoy the Newford books as much

  40. Kimberly B. says:

    So happy to read all the War for the Oaks love! This is an old favorite of mine, and I live very close to where Eddi does in the book!

Comments are closed.

↑ Back to Top