Music and magic: Emma Bull’s 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).


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