Time to read and review some urban fantasy! As this is the blog’s first review, I think I should put down some reviewing standards. I’ll only review books I like, or if I don’t like them, it’ll still review them if they’re cool and interesting in other ways.1
War of the Oaks by Emma Bull is credited with being one of the earliest ‘modern’ urban fantasies. 2
Fae and their Seelie and Unseelie courts are a popular trope in urban fantasy. The Sidhe royalty ruling over a variety of different fae—inhuman, glamorous and beautiful; lower castes of fae like brownies, cheerful and hardworking; dashing balls and dangerous intrigues. It all started with this book, back in 1987. War for the Oaks didn’t invent the fae courts, but rather codified them into their modern form. (Also, it was a strong influence on the Changeling: the Dreaming roleplaying game, back in the 1990s, along with a bunch of Neil Gaiman comics, but I digress.)
Eddi is a musician in the Minneapolis music scene. After a disastrous booking, she breaks up with her boyfriend (the band’s manager) and then breaks up with the band. And inadvertently becomes the Seelie court’s champion in a staged war with the Unseelie Court. She’s got to be their ‘chosen one’ for six months, until the war ends after an agreed three rounds. Eddi’s presence is required to bring an aspect of mortality to the war, so that “all wounds would be true ones, and some would be fatal.” A phouka, fae who can turn into a dog, is assigned to be her bodyguard for the next six months until the war ends. And in the interim, Eddi starts a new band.
The book is well written. The plot is straightforward; even languid in some places. It’s more about Eddi, her band, and her attraction to the phouka and some new mysterious band members. Minneapolis is well-depicted; the descriptions are feel authentic and lived in. And the fae and their courts are nicely detailed, regal and inhuman; a nice contrast to the city about them. And the chapter titles are all song titles!
Stuart, the loser ex-boyfriend, isn’t a great villain – he’s easily treated as a punching bag by Eddi’s fae boyfriends, and doesn’t really do a lot as the Unseelie champion to oppose Eddi. Speaking of fae boyfriends, the phouka strongly intrudes on Eddi’s life, but she’s okay with it by the end of the book.
From a diversity perspective, it could be more progressive. The upper class fae are pale, and the darker-hued fae (as far as I could tell) are the lower class ones. The phouka (who doesn’t get a name?) gets described as in exotic terms—”His brown skin was a shocking contrast to the rumpled white sheets”. But he does have a lot of agency; he’s the main love interest, and he’s directly acting against the classist structure of the fae world. By selecting Eddi as the ‘‘chosen one’, the phouka is hoping to break up the two courts by starting a third faction. “I needed someone who might command the respect and admiration of the high and low ranks.” At the end, there’s no bright anarchic revolution, but seeds are planted for future change. Something that interested me; I’d like to see more ‘class revolution’ aspects in fae stories by other writers.
Overall, despite the gentle pacing, I enjoyed this; the battles are a nice contrast with Eddi’s regular life, and I liked her determination to live her own life despite being drawn into the supernatural world.
For me, urban fantasy is defined by the late 1990s and early 2000s – not through novels, but through tabletop roleplaying games (RPGs). It was after second edition D&D had gotten dull and stale (and TSR’s long, entropic demise didn’t help) but before third edition D&D (which made our group want to pick up swords and leap into dungeons again).
So in this window, we started to play other things that weren’t D&D. Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Cyberpunk, the Everlasting…
It was different feeling to run around a modern city than a fantasy realm, especially a local one that you were familiar with. Still, we brought over from D&D an expectation of violence, and a lot of our earlier games ended up like mafia games with fangs, leather jackets and Desert Eagles (which was the best weapon in the game!) Gradually we drifted into more character-based, thematic gaming based on those books, especially when World of Darkness started to focus on different monster types for you to explore and play – vampires, mages changelings and so on. Then we went on to explore our own ideas such as a short-lived Highlander game1 and our own visions of urban fantasy.
So when I started the urban fantasy novel project, I started to figure out what I wanted from it, how you could build a modern-day setting with lots of supernatural critters, how they interacted with each other, and how would I make this an interesting place to explore. After buckets of text later, I realised I was structuring my notes like an RPG book. Who would the characters be in the setting? What would they be? And as I work on both side by side, the novel and the RPG are complimenting each other. I hope to release them both, and will see if the RPG captures (and improves upon) the experience of those early games2 in the time of swords of Desert Eagles…
As I sit here, a glass of rum over ice close to hand, I am forced to ponder my impending mortality, and writing career. Or rather, lack of it.1 You know, I always thought that by 40-mumble, I’d have it made. Books published. Name in neon lights. Time to kiss that day job good-bye, and retreat to my writing garret where I would have completed every book I ever wanted to, with glowing fame, reviews, movie contracts, roleplaying game spin offs and video games.2
So, for the past twenty years, cripes, I’ve been working on a bunch of epic fantasy novels set in the same universe. They’ve been piling up, and they’re recursive, where I’d write one draft, then realise I wanted to write about the backstory of an other character, and would write a draft, realising that I needed another set-up book… And look. There’s a whole cloud drive full of prequels to prequels that aren’t going anywhere, any time soon. My current project is another stab at the epic fantasy epic, but it’s going take a while to sort out. I started it without knowing where it was going, and now I’m nearing the ending without knowing where it’s going either. 3
Part of the reason for this pile of stuff is that I don’t really plan stuff. Got a vague idea in my head, a strong idea for a character, and then I let it rip. So this leads to lots of dead ends, re-writes, re-builds and angry words. And then, as I realise that this book will take far longer than I have anticipated, I look over at other writing colleagues with actual finished books. Jealousy burns! How dare they, while my beautiful, epic fantasy still lumbers along, half-baked…
And then it occurred to me. What if I write… something else? What if I sign up for one of those commercial writing courses, and write something that follows an outline? (I’ve heard about them, but I’m not quite sure what they do yet.) Well, turning out a short book isn’t really something that someone who has spent spent 20 years writing EPIC FANTASY has a great deal of experience with, but, well, you need to start somewhere.
And then I thought, I’d change genres (mildly). I would write… urban fantasy. Noir, detectives, vampires, slick city streets, curses and people struggling just to get by. So, I know a bit about the genre, having played hundreds of hours of urban fantasy tabletop RPGs in the’90s and early ’00s (the Golden Age of Gaming). 4 And I can do a course, write a book, and have something structured and able to be self-published as something on Amazon in a year’s time. It’ll be amazing, and I can blog about it!
So, is it possible to plan, write and finish a book within one year of this post? Especially for a serial non-finisher? Let’s find out…