• book review,  urban fantasy

    Book Review: War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

    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.