Monday, 20 March 2017

Review: War of the Oaks by Emma Bull

An Urban Fantasy classic, War of the Oaks was first published in 1987 and has now be rereleased by Penguin with a foreword by Naomi Alderman.

The novel is set in Minneapolis, in the 1980s and centres on Eddi McCandry, a guitarist and vocalist who at the start of the novel makes a fateful decision and ends up in a situation that's beyond her wildest imaginings. Chosen to be a champion of the Seelie Court, purely to bring death to the battlefield in their war against the Unseelie Court (their opposites). Burdened with a phouka bodyguard and without a practical way to make money, Eddi is forced to start another band and the novel focuses on the development of that as well as her involvement in the war. Her relationships also fall under the novel's scrutiny, as she becomes more a part of Faerie and her involvement in their conflict spreads out to include her bandmates.

The book is very much about passion and growth, Bull takes pains to reflect the messy, but growing, nature of human lives against the perfect stasis of Faerie where everything is wonderful but, as Bull takes pains to point out, there are only copies. No Faerie can create, only imitate. Even the mavericks among their kind are bound by this inability, endlessly recreating things, in sharp contrast to Eddi's ability to innovate and make things that are genuinely new, and genuinely felt. This is further underlined by one of Faerie characters in the novel who is obsessed with finding out the deeper meaning of love and death, acknowledging that he can only play at humanity. This being said there is a beauty and wonder in how the faerie and magic are represented. There is a lovely whimsy to much of the magic, paper aeroplanes are used to deliver messages, faeries are summoned by pushing blood into a cake. The traditional tricks are explored and developed and it all makes sense. More, because the story is a stand alone and it is focused purely on this area and group there is no sense of the world being crowded by supernatural beings and the reason that the Faerie war isn't covered on the evening news makes sense as a result, even when battles are fought in the middle of the city.

This, along with the reason for Eddi being drawn into the conflict in the first place, underscores the theme of living, and the meaning and reason for living, in the novel. Rock music is used not just as a metaphor for this but as an illustration, Bull uses music to punctuate tone and, as Naomi Alderman notes in her foreword, you could easily build a playlist from the songs she references.

The characters are likeable, if not especially deep (but that's okay this is fiction, not literature) and the reader will feel a real sense of affection for them as they develop and their lives intertwine. Presented as a group growing into a family, the characters come to depend upon each other more and more and there's a real sense of loss when the inevitable happens and one of them dies.

The narrative is a little predictable, there's some heavy signposting with some of the characters but that doesn't seem to matter so much here. It was almost pleasant to be able to work out some things about the characters without, or before, having their secrets explicitly revealed.

All in all, if you're an Urban Fantasy fan, I'd argue that this is a must read. You owe it to yourself to reach back an earlier work and experience one of the works that laid the tracks for Dresden, Anita Blake and all the other characters we know today.  If you need a touchstone, think Charles de Lint, as this book very much reminded me of the Newford novels.

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