Book Review: War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

The final book for the Readings in the Genre: Fantasy Classics for my Master of Fine Arts in Writing Popular Fiction was War for the Oaks (Fantasy 319 pages) by Emma Bull.

When I started the novel, I was so excited by it! Here was a woman in the 80s in Minneapolis, a place I lived for some time, talking about all the familiar locations and dance places and clubs and she was in a band and yay! She was also mouthy and had a fantastic sense of right and wrong.

And then the romance. I’m glad she broke up with Stuart, as that was a very unhealthy relationship, and I absolutely understood both why she was in the relationship and why she reacted to him the way she did, even when he hit her. People in unhealthy relationships are often unwilling or incapable of removing themselves from that situation. I wasn’t too upset when Eddi hooked up with Willy because I could tell from the second that he was applying for a position with the band that he was high Faerie. I figured he was working some of that Faerie magic on her and that the draw was something similar to a cat with catnip. I actually admired her for breaking it off with Willy as quickly as she did, and having the ability to stand by her decision and not allow herself to be used.

But then the whole thing with Pouka started. I could see the romantic undertones throughout the whole story, but I kept secretly hoping that they would wind up saving the world and not being romantically inclined. I also realize that this is a scenario that I have yet to see in Urban Fantasy. The woman, in order to be seen as the strong heroine, must prove she can sleep with whomever she chooses, and then fall for the obvious love interest at a convenient “we need a happily ever after” moment. And it’s frustrating. I think I would have really enjoyed this book a lot more if the relationship with Pouka hadn’t happened the way it did. And I was far more forgiving of that relationship than I normally am because it was expected from all the Urban Fantasy I’ve read before. You know it’s coming so you just accept it with a sigh and move on.

Right from the beginning of Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks, I could tell that this was going to be a very artistically inclined story. Art is slipped in like the gentle stirrings of a breeze off the ocean, bringing tidings of an inbound hurricane. The clothes, style, culture, and even the descriptions in this novel are all artistically focused, and art plays a crucial role in the development of the storyline and of the characters. The band’s first official gig, before they even have a name, is to play the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. While music, and especially music involving more rock and/or pop, may not be immediately classified as art in some circles, the ability to create anything with a sole purpose to evoke strong emotions in a particular target audience deserves to be credited as art.

Art is so subtly slipped into this book starting with the very prologue and first paragraph on page 13: “On the many-globed lampposts, banners advertising a museum exhibit flap in the wind that the tallest buildings snatch out of the sky. The skyway system vaults the mall with its covered bridges of steel and glass, and they, too, are full of people, color, motion.” And then later from the same page: “A low, growling laugh, then: ‘She makes music, the kind that moves heart and body.’” Two completely different art forms are mentioned within this story on the very first page of the prologue, with museums usually dedicated to the visual arts with paintings and sculptures while Eddi, the main character, makes music. I think one of the key setting elements for this story is from this very page where the pouka describes Eddi as a woman who makes music, not a woman who plays music. This distinction becomes extremely important later in the story.

The pouka hints at the power of art and the power of humanity itself on page 70 when he is discussing with Eddi why she should consider siding with the Seelie Court instead of the Unseelie Court: “’There is a power in a mortal soul that all of Faerie cannot muster, power that comes from mortality itself.’” The pouka references several times throughout the story how the beings of Faerie are very steeped in their rules and their traditions and that they lack their own creative will. Eddi notices this particular quirk of Faerie, and uses it to her advantage in dealing with the Queen of Air and Darkness. One Example of this is found on page 262: ‘”Is there anything you do that you didn’t steal from a movie?” Eddi said softly.’

The key difference between the world of Faerie and the world of humanity is that humans are creative and inventive. During the night of the truce and the revelry, the Faerie music seems to be a constant replay of songs that are already in existence that the Faerie folk have learned to copy throughout the centuries. Eddi is different in the sense that she actually creates her own music. She writes the lyrics, she pulls the strengths of each of the band members together, and directs them to create the most emotional and human experience she can.

Throughout this entire story, art is seen as the one trait the Faerie folk admire and are jealous of from the mortal world. I’ve only read one other story that used art as the key to solving a very difficult dilemma, and that was another Urban Fantasy story with a female protagonist. This is the only story I think I’ve ever seen where the main battle between the “good” and “evil” faerie kingdoms is solved through a battle of the bands, though. Eddi, Carla, Danny, and Hedge succeed in winning over the crowd during the playing at First Avenue because Eddi is able to improvise and push her own emotions through her music, which is another aspect of the artistic quality of this story. Most of the time, the music of Eddi and the Fey is referred to as “her music”, as though she is the owner and propagator of that music. Eddi uses her humanity and her faerie power to create a shared bond with the audience. She knows what they feel and she forces them to feel her emotions through her music and her mild manipulation of illusion.

The power of humanity in this story revolves around the mortal inability to follow rules and the ability to think creatively, which to me is the key definition of art. Every poem, painting, sculpture, drawing, story, musical selection, or dance, plus so many others, created freely and without constraint, are examples of what it means to be human. We improvise; we create; and at the end of War for the Oaks, the key victory is won through humanity’s emotions, through humanity’s passion and creativity; through art.

This really was a fascinating look at the novel that I noticed in passing, but didn’t pay much attention to while I was reading. I think this is one of the first novels I’ve ever read where the characters purposefully changed clothes multiple times because they wanted to. In fact, I can’t think of any other stories off the top of my head where the clothes were given such detailed descriptions and helped to facilitate the setting in such a way as this did. That’s some really fantastic thoughts about the illusions and identities associated with clothes and becoming who we are. I would have never looked at this novel this way if you hadn’t brought it up, but I’m certainly glad you did!

The 80s definitely had it’s own, unique style. From what I remember, it was very colorful and very “anything goes” kind of fashion statements. Like flipping the collar on denim jackets up. And the “No shoes, no shirt, no service” thing that pretty much anyone will find amusing.

I really liked Michael’s ideas on this story being more of a portal quest because Eddi has to be invited in because Pouka even uses his jacket as a portal in order to rescue Willy. Pouka had some sort of magic wardrobe or ability to conjur clothes whenever he saw fit, and his wardrobe always seemed well-suited to the task. Eddi and Pouka knew they were going to get searched when they went to rescue Willy, so they used Pouka’s clothes to provide all of the perfectly-timed rescue necessities. So clothes and a battle of the bands saved the day. Fascinating story.

This story definitely appeals to those youths who feel as though they are outsiders (which is all of them). I think another comment along those lines is that this book was written during a time when everyone wanted to be a Rock Star. So this story is also something of a wish fulfillment novel because it increases the idea that once you’re in a band and playing all the high-traffic establishments, your life will be magical! You’ll have friends closer than most of your family members in the other members of the band. You’ll have this great, all-powerful love. People will respect you and admire your music and your artwork. People will know you and think highly of you. Which, really, is the exact opposite of every experience you actually have while you’re in high school. So this novel really is a perfect tie-in for young adults and urban fantasy.

I have some buddies who are from Minneapolis, and I even lived there for a few years. The area was a lot more openly accepting of just about everything. So when Eddi starts learning about the world of Faerie and how it interacts with the world she knows, she just sort of rolls with it. And getting the band together is important because it’s her passion and how she pays rent and buys food, so of course that’s a higher priority than playing games with mythological creatures.

Overall, I would say this book is a solid three on my rating scale. It was a fascinating use of music and art in order to save the world and I liked that so many of the locations were familiar. I wasn’t such a huge fan of the romance story, but I understand why it was there and it did actually move the story forward.

About C.A. Jacobs

Just another crazy person, masquerading as a writer.
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