War for the Oaks by Emma Bull. ★★★★
First published in 1987, War for the Oaks is one of the pioneers of the urban fantasy genre. On the night that Eddi McCandry breaks up with her boyfriend and leaves his band, she has a run in with the fey. Turns out, she’s been chosen as a pawn in the war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts.
War for the Oaks draws upon what’s nowadays fairly familiar aspects of fairy folklore. The Seelie and Unseelie courts, the fey’s love of mortal musicians, creatures such as brownies and phoukas, and so on. However, the story focuses just as much on Eddie forming a new band as it does on her role in the fairy war.
Music plays a huge role in War for the Oaks. Eddi’s life revolves around music and creating music. I’m not much of a music person (to the point where I rarely listen to it on my own), so I think it’s a testament to the strength of Bull’s writing that I enjoyed these sections as much as I did. Let me be clear – I found War for the Oaks excellently written. The descriptions were lush and vibrant, and the dialog snappy.
I’m the wrong generation to have eighties nostalgia, but War for the Oaks did remind me of the eighties movies I’ve seen. Obviously, none of the musical references outdated 1987, but there were also a lot of descriptions of clothes that seem specific to the era. It’s not exactly specific to the time period, but there was also a bit of casual background racism, and Eddie just accepted that Stuart would react violently to the breakup.
My favorite character by far is the phouka, a shapeshifter who turns from man to dog. He’s exuberant and flamboyant, and his dialog for some reason reminds me of a Shakespearean play. I realize only now that I never became strongly attached to Eddie herself, although I did like her friendship with Carla, the drummer in her band. Maybe it’s because so much of Eddie’s life revolves around her music that it’s hard to get a sense of her outside of that?
The climax of the book felt like it was over with very quickly. It was also a lot more vaguely mystical than the rest of the book, in a way that reminds me of Robin McKinley’s writing.
I’d really like to know more about the influence War for the Oaks had on the genre. I know it was one of the very first urban fantasy novels, and I can clearly see it’s touch in books like Holly Black’s Tithe. If anyone ever comes across some sort of essay on the subject, I would love to read it.
I don’t think War for the Oaks will feel particularly novel to anyone familiar with fairies in today’s urban fantasy. However, I’d still suggest it as a well written example of the genre and to anyone interested in a fantasy book centering on music.