War for the Oaks by Emma Bull
Published: Ace Books, 1987
Awards: Locus Award for Best First Novel
“Eddi McCandry has just left her boyfriend and their band when she finds herself running through the Minneapolis night, pursued by a sinister man and a huge, terrifying dog. The two creatures are one and the same: a phouka, a faerie being who has chosen Eddi to be a mortal pawn in the age-old war between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. Eddi isn't interested--but she doesn't have a choice. Now she struggles to build a new life and new band when she might not even survive till the first rehearsal.” ~goodreads.com
I’m reading War for the Oaks as a part of the 2011 Women in Fantasy Book Club. I’ve never read any of Emma Bull’s work before, but this, her debut novel, does seem like a good place to start.
The three main elements of The War for the Oaks are music, romance, and fairies. The musical plot focuses on guitarist/vocalist Eddi McCandry’s effort to form a successful band. Eddi’s just left her boyfriend and his disastrous cover band “InKline Plain”, and she hopes that her new group will be able to hit it big with their own material. Emma Bull puts a lot of thought into the technical details of the band, Eddi’s audition process, how the members sound together, and even how playing makes them feel. The popular songs they play are explicitly mentioned, and Bull even wrote lyrics for the band’s original material. It made me wonder if getting a soundtrack of the existing songs would enhance the atmosphere of the book. My personal background in music may influence my attitude here, but I really enjoyed the parts of the novel that focused on Eddi’s band.
For me, the romantic elements of the book were much less engaging. The love story was pretty standard and predictable. Eddi was kind of an unintentional magnet for gorgeous, magical guys. Despite the fact that Eddi’s love interests were ancient, powerful creatures, they seemed very much like her peers in terms of emotional maturity and life experience. Early in the book, there was some talk about the insurmountable differences between humans and the fey, but this was more or less abandoned once Eddi started falling in love. It seemed that only the superficial differences between fey and human, such as the fey’s stilted speech patterns, were maintained consistently throughout the book.
This is only slightly related to the book’s romantic leanings, but I noticed that the writing seemed to dwell on physical appearance. Almost every character’s appearance was extensively described at least once, and attractive characters were re-described fairly often. All of the characters’ clothes were treated to the same scrutiny, and it seemed that each scene contained at least one detailed outfit description. I found this intense focus on clothing and pretty people to be a little distracting from the main story.
I was interested in the fairies’ Seelie and Unseelie Courts, but I was a little frustrated by how little the reader was shown of their conflict or their societies. The Unseelie Court was left a near-complete mystery. The only Unseelie characters that actually interacted with Eddi were their Queen and random fairy thugs. Through the Phouka, Eddi’s shape-changing bodyguard, slightly more was explained about the workings of the Seelie Court. There are tantalizing mentions of a class struggle in the Seelie Court, between the sidhe and the ‘lower’ fey, but the topic was never really explored in detail.
The current conflict between the Seelie and Unseelie Courts provided the reason for Eddi’s involvement. Eddi was chosen by the Seelie Court to bind her own mortality to Faerie, enabling the fey to be killed in battle. The fairies were fighting over who got to rule Minneapolis, and the fight seemed more like a tradition than a result of any actual grievance. If the Seelie won, Minneapolis would stay a great place for living things. If the Unseelie won, it would wither and die. Therefore, once Eddi got over being recruited without her permission, the story was pretty much a basic struggle of Good vs. Evil. As a result, the plot was kind of generic, and it led to a very predictable finale.
My Rating: 3/5
War for the Oaks is a quick book to read, and I enjoyed the descriptions of Eddi’s efforts to form a successful band. I would have liked for the Faerie story to be a little more involved, and to see more of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts. In specific, it would have been great to see more about the clash between the Sidhe and lower fey, and I would have loved to see more of the Unseelie besides the Queen and a few random murderous thugs. I’m not really a romance fan in general, and the romance in this story seemed a little forced and unrealistic to me. All in all, War for the Oaks might be a good choice if you’re in the mood for a light, simple story about the power of music and love, with some supernatural flair.