Sorry for the delay, folks. Circumstances in real life have gotten beyond me, but I hope to be back on track for June’s selection. In the mean time, please feel free to discuss this month’s book!
Few books have been recommended to me as iconic or staples of any one genre. These are the influential novels—the kind that reverberate beyond their own pages and unintentionally inspire a myriad movement of successive novels yearning to dive into some unconsciousness first unlocked in these pioneering books. Whatever the reason for genre or subgenre movements (and they are many: homage, coincidence, timing, inspiration, to name a few), pinpointing where it all began, or where it became indelibly embedded in the popular consciousness, some novels are undeniably distinguished among their peers.
According to the jacket copy, Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks “defined modern urban fantasy.” My experience with Urban Fantasy is mostly limited to Seanan McGuire—at least Urban Fantasy as it’s become popularly known, and not as I used to imagine it (something more along the lines of Charles de Lint or Harry Potter). Still, I really love the Toby Daye series. But to say I chose this book because of Seanan McGuire wouldn’t be entirely truthful. I’d never presume to credit her series with an influence that may or may not be true. I am, however, interested in reading more Urban Fantasy. Why not try one the earliest and, if the quote is to be believed, one of the most influential books of the genre?
Certain tropes were recognizable from across several types of books, mostly those that deal with the mysterious world of Fairy (or any number of spelling variants). Glamour; Faerie Queens; two opposing and, according to our human standards, sometimes morally ambiguous courts; strange creatures; magic; a linguistic balancing act of semantics and deadly verbal contracts—things that are now commonplace I had to reassess in terms of historical context. It was not easy to do and unfortunately, I found myself wishing I had read this book earlier. I did not feel my familiarity with these ideas assembled so closely to what I have already read was fair to how I was receiving this novel.
Nevertheless, of these elements, I did enjoy how Bull arranged the fantastical around the mundane. Meg, in particular, was always a treat and Hedge, to a lesser extent. These are characters that arrive later in the narrative, after we meet protagonist Eddi McCandry. Her band has broken up, as has her relationship and she is left to pick up the pieces and start fresh with a new purpose. When she is unexpectedly attacked on her way home one evening, Eddi becomes part of a much larger world—one involving a man who can turn into a dog, a woman who appears to be part water fountain, and a dark war between supernatural forces determined to recruit Eddi whether she wants to join or not.
The narrative is swept up in Eddi’s confusion and frustrations as she tries to navigate her personal life and the intrusion of the phouka bodyguard who moves into her apartment, a constant reminder of the otherworldly war she has become a part of. The novel is very grounded and finds a good balance between Eddi’s normal life, assembling a new band and all of the people, instruments, and creative energy that goes into such an endeavor, and that of the magical world she is not nearly as familiar with. The phouka is a great example of this. He’s a strange mixture—both threatening and protective, but always utterly alien in his movements, speech, strange cryptic answers, and soldierly vigil. He’s an enigma, but one that Eddi, over time, learns to appreciate and even rely on.
Aside from the band and the war, most of the novel revolves around the relationships Eddi develops between various characters. In fact, the war would almost seem inconsequential for as prominently as it features in the novel, if it weren’t the catalyst thrusting Eddi and her new found friends together. The anticipation of that event looms heavily in the background and creates many shared experiences. Out of these are born friendship, romance, loyalty, and art. The war is, for the most part, merely an idea until those rare moments when it is all of Eddi’s frightening reality. The first battle scene was admittedly my favorite. Spurred on by the eldritch drone of bagpipes, that first charge is elegantly alien and wonderfully written. The rest of the novel, while well balanced and considerate of the characters, is also largely focused on the musical elements of Eddi’s band. While this is important, most of the strengths and potential beauty inherent in those scenes were lost on me.
Sometimes I feel tone deaf when reading a novel. Not literally, but sometimes my lack of exposure or experience or even interest in some things limits how well I receive certain novels. This is, of course, nothing to do with an author’s ability to make me believe in a world or things I’ve never been to or seen. War for the Oaks had this effect on me. Readers familiar with many artists, song titles, or certain lyrics will better appreciate the chapter headings and the covers Eddi’s band plays. Unfortunately, I felt as if I needed to hop onto iTunes every few chapters because otherwise I, uncultured louse that I am, would completely miss the extra layer and role music plays in this book. Without music, the lyrical edge is gone and the art that becomes so integral to the plot wouldn’t be nearly as significant.
Overall, I found myself interested in Bull’s writing, but was not as engaged as I could have been with War for the Oaks. Whether the deficiency was mine and the musical elements were intended for a better reader, or whether I could not connect well to the driving relationship between Eddi and the phouka, there was something here that I had trouble relating to. But, I do think Urban Fantasy fans will find enjoyment out of this one. And I definitely will be reading more Emma Bull in the future.
Release Date: July 6, 2001
Reviewed Format: Trade paperback
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