Apr 29 2013 3:00pm

Music and magic: Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks

Review Emma Bull War for the Oaks

Whenever I describe my Tufa novels, The Hum and the Shiver and the upcoming Wisp of a Thing, to potential readers, they immediately mention two literary antecedents. One is the Silver John stories and novels by Manly Wade Wellman, which I discussed here. The other is Emma Bull’s 1987 novel War for the Oaks.

Kelly McCullough, author of the WebMage and Fallen Blade series, says, “my first (and forever trunked) novel is pretty much a mashup of Anne Rice and Emma Bull. Interview with the Oaks, or something like it.” Seanan McGuire calls it the first urban fantasy, and it’s easy to see the birth of many tropes now associated with that genre. Eddi McCandry, a young woman struggling to make it as a musician in Minneapolis, is chosen by the denizens of Faerie to help the Seelie Court in its battle against its nemesis, the Unseelies. Once she is initiated into Faerie, she finds that her music now bears a magic that can cause tangible results. She is also romantically torn between two male denizens of Faerie, bad boy Willy Silver and the shapeshifter known only as “phouka.” But Eddi also finds that she has the power to end the war, if her music is good enough.

I finally read Oaks on my recent flight down to Atlanta for Jordan Con. I’d read her later novel, Territory, and really enjoyed it, having just enough background in the Wyatt Earp/Doc Holliday legend to really appreciate her twists on it. But I’d put off reading Oaks precisely because so many people seemed to feel my books had a lot in common with it.

As with the Silver John stories, I now understand why people make the connection to my Tufa books. In this case, there are both musicians and faeries, and a sense that magic resides in music. But also as with Silver John, I think that similarity is mainly a surface one. Which, again as with Wellman’s tales, actually delights me, because it means I can enjoy War for the Oaks with a clear conscience.

In Bull’s world, faeries are a diverse lot, multicultural and multispecies. They have elaborate social rules, and an inflated sense of honor despite their trickster natures. They can change shape, stop time, and exist for centuries. Music is just one way they manifest their magic, and not a primary one.

But where Bull’s novel excels is in depicting the clash between Faerie and the real world of 1987. They co-exist with our reality, coming through whenever they feel like it and taking Eddi into their alternate world with ease. That other existence runs parallel to ours, overlapping in places but also carving out its own space.

The romantic element, which has become a major aspect of both urban fantasy and its offshoot, paranormal romance, is also handled with great skill. Eddi may be confused by her feelings, but she never loses her focus, which is her music. She has fierce courage and a strong sense of loyalty, which contrasts with Faerie’s more simplistic ideas of right and wrong. She never emotionally penalizes herself for having doubts about her two potential partners, and works through her relationship issues with real maturity. And when she puts together her band, it’s with single-minded drive and clarity of purpose. I’m no musician, but I have it on good authority that her depiction of the band’s dynamics is accurate, and it’s certainly vivid. It feels like a real band, even to this non-player.

So Bull’s Faerie and my Tufa—who use their music to connect to their deities, as well as to hold their isolated Appalachian community together—aren’t really that similar, which is okay. And while War for the Oaks may have started a genre, it’s also a wonderful book on its own, with a great final line.

Which I won’t reveal here.

(There are some great videos on YouTube for this book, many of them produced by Bull and her husband, Will Shetterly. Do a title search and they come right up.)

Alex Bledsoe is author of the Eddie LaCrosse novels (The Sword-Edged Blonde, Burn Me Deadly, Dark Jenny, Wake of the Bloody Angel), the novels of the Memphis vampires (Blood Groove and The Girls with Games of Blood) and the Tufa novels (The Hum and the Shiver, and the forthcoming Wisp of a Thing).

Michael Grosberg
1. Michael_GR
What I wouldn't give to have this book re-written with Seattle as a backdrop and Grunge instead of 80's folk-pop.
Ian Tregillis
2. ITregillis
I read this book just after moving away from Minneapolis, where I had lived for a long time. It did a lot to help assuage the loneliness I felt at the time, because most of the real-world locations in the book were very familiar to me. For that alone I'll always be fond of this book. Not to mention that it's a fun read!
Paul Weimer
3. PrinceJvstin
Read this before I ever visited Minneapolis...and re-read once I moved it.

One of my favorites, a seminal book for Urban Fantasy!
Kevin Maroney
5. womzilla
Not to take anything from Bull, but Seanan is wrong; leaving aside Anne Rice's vampire books and Leiber's Our Lady of Darkness as horror novels rather than "fantasy", the late 20th century version of urban fantasy began a few years earlier with Charles de Lint's Moonheart.
Albert Clay
6. alclay
Whenever I wish to think fondly of Minneapolis, I read War for the Oaks.
wizard clip
7. wizard clip
Was it really 1987 when this came out? I suddenly feel very old (and not in an immortal, eternally beautiful fairy sort of way). I don't think that I was in any way aware that this was an early entry in a new subgenre when I read it. Maybe years of reading comics in which all sorts of fantastic beings regularly interact with ordinary mortals in a contemporary setting had conditioned me to accept such a premise, so perhaps we should give comic books credit as the true original medium for urban fantasy.
wizard clip
8. Nicholas Winter
Number Six: if you've not read her Bone Dance: A Fantasy for Technophiles, you should as it's set in a post-apocalypse Minneapolis which makes use of geography far better than War for The Oaks does. And it has some of the music found in War for the Oaks!

Tor released a nifty trade paper edition a few years back and it's also available as a digital book.
Michael M Jones
9. MichaelMJones
I have never made a secret of my love for this book, writing long love letters disguised as reviews. But the simple thing is: War For The Oaks is one of my all-time favorite books in any genre, ever. It's a comfort book. I can open it to any page, enjoy the scenes, enjoy the characters, sink into the comfortable embrace of the descriptions of music and magic, revel in the marriage of real world and fantasy...

War For The Oaks is damned near perfect because it was such an early entry in the urban fantasy genre. Like walking in virgin snow, it was new and interesting and different, a rare and wonderful beast, breaking new ground and pushing into new territory. There wasn't a whole lot of urban fantasy (magic realism, whatever you want to call it) at the time, so Bull's take is original and relatively uninfluenced. While today's UF and paranormal romance build on years of work and hundreds of precedessors, WFTO is still a trailblazer.

And that's why it's a book I love. Is it the best-written out there? The most original? The most artistic? Maybe not. But it was one of the first of its kind, certainly one of the earliest I encountered, and it shaped my love of the genre and my expectations for many years to follow.

If you'll humor me, you can find my review, originally done for Green Man Review, here. But I honestly can't recommend this book enough for anyone who's ever loved urban fantasy, magic realism, paranormal romance, or any of that ilk.
wizard clip
10. Cat @ Green Man Review
I have four copies of this book, the original paperback from 1984 and three latter editions released by Tor including two different hardcover editions that never officially got released. Two of these copies signed by Emma, one while she was healing up from breaking both her arms in a fall and the other one much later.

Michael, I re-edited your review and it should be up at Sleeping Hedgehog shortly with links to all the Cats Laughing music you noted and the War for The Oaks trailer as well.
Sol Foster
13. colomon
"One is the Silver John stories and novels by Manly Wade Wellman, which I discussed here. The other is Emma Bull’s 1987 novel War for the Oaks."
Woah, way to get your books on my radar quickly!
Pamela Adams
14. PamAdams
Looking back (not difficult- my latest re-read was about a month ago!), one of the things that I love about War for the Oaks is that it's not trying to put our characters through love triangles. Eddi dates and then breaks up with one character for good reasons and later finds love with another. There's no "drama" of the high school sort, and I for one, don't miss it.
wizard clip
15. Beth Treadway
Been a little in love with the Pooka from my first read. Have to hold it together with a rubber band but can't bear to give up that dogeared, much moved around the world copy.
wizard clip
16. TheBookFrog
First of all--thanks for the gorgeous recommendation! I'm going to buy it for my bookstore and read it myself as well.

On the subject of the first urban fantasy novel, I've always (in my own head) bestowed that honor on John Crowley's 1981 novel Little, Big
Shelly wb
17. shellywb
When I've read this, I can't help but think of it as Purple Rain AU fan fiction. Very well written top-notch professional-grade fan fiction, but nonetheless it's Prince I see every single time.
wizard clip
18. Nathan Long
I am fortunate enough to have had Emma and Will as teachers for a short while, which was a dream come true, since I'd fallen in love with the Bordertown series years before and had worshiped them from afar. My own work has veered far from the fae - though there's still plenty of rock n' roll in it - but the advice Emma and Will gave me and the lessons learned from their books I use every time I write.

Alex, If you haven't read any of the Bordertown books, particularly 'Finder' by Emma, you should. That and War For the Oaks are my favorite urban fantasies.

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