A Review of War for the Oaks by Emma Bull
By REBECCA, June 8, 2012
Eddi McCandry: badass musician who starts her own band and finds herself in the middle of a war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts
The Phouka: sent by the Seelie court to guard Eddi, he is half Prince and half Oscar Wilde . . . oh, and half dog
Carla DiAmato: Eddi’s best friend, and a kick-ass drummer, who wants to protect Eddi
Willy Silver: the band’s beautiful and eerily talented new guitarist
Dan Rochelle: the band’s new keyboardist and wizard of sampler, sequencer, and synth—hello, it’s the ‘80s, folks!
Hedge: the shy and silent new bassist
Eddi McCandry just broke up with her boyfriend and her band in one night, and now she’s being chased by a dude who can turn into a dog. How much worse can things get?! Well, she could be a mortal caught in an epic, age-old war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts of the fey . . . and the dude who can turn into a dog could be forbidden to leave her side. Ever. But Eddi is a rocker and a badass, so she does what anyone would do in her position: she starts a new band—a band so good that maybe music isn’t all they’re making.
War For the Oaks is set in 1980s Minneapolis, and Eddi is a guitarist and singer who has been playing with bands she’s not that into and dating Stuart, a certified douchebag. Then, when she’s making her way home after leaving the band and deciding to break up with Stuart, Eddi is chased by the phouka, a man/dog shape-shifting fey, and drafted into service of the Seelie court as a kind of human barometer of an otherwise unmeasurable war between the Seelie and Unseelie court. As such, it is now the phouka’s job to protect her from those fey who mean her harm. So he moves in and goes everywhere Eddi goes, which produces many awkward and amusing scenarios. The phouka is pretty hilarious, and his interactions with Eddi and her bandmates are delightful.
In my reviews of Karina Halle’s awesome Experiment In Terror series here and here, I mentioned that I really like books that feature characters in their twenties. I feel the same way about War For the Oaks. Eddi is an awesome character—she’s intensely passionate about music, so it’s her main focus; she doesn’t really have a job, and she’s just broken up with her boyfriend; and rather than turning to a family or lover, she has a really great relationship with her best friend, Carla. It totally feels like your twenties to me. I also really like the friendship between Eddi and Carla because it’s caring and they try to protect each other, but they don’t interfere in each other’s lives or try to control their decisions.
“[Eddie] looked down her nose at the phouka and said, ‘All right, play guard dog if it makes you feel good. I’ll go climb out the bedroom window.’ She turned and started away.
‘It’s painted shut.’
‘How do you know?’
‘Gracious, pet, I’m a supernatural being.’
‘You’re a shithead,’ Eddie said sweetly, and led Carla off to the bedroom.
Eddi paced the tiny space at the end of the bed, and Carla drew her feet out of the way in mock alarm.
‘Don’t worry, I won’t tell him how to handle you.’
Eddi glanced at her deadpan face. ‘I don’t think I want to know this.’
Carla shrugged. ‘Anytime I want you to do something, I convince you it would be stupid and annoying.’
Eddi laughed and sat on the bed beside her. ‘You don’t want me to start a band?’
Carla shrugged. ‘Sometimes I forget.’
Eddi pulled a strand of Carla’s shiny black hair. ‘Silly bitch.’” (53)
The chemistry between the characters is great: they feel like real friends, real people who are getting to know each other, and real bandmates. Bonus: awesome eighties rocker-glam-androgynous-badass fashion and hair!
what were this book’s intentions? did it live up to them?
I am a huge sucker for a really good dude-let’s-start-a-band book, and War For the Oaks is, first and foremost, a celebration of the magic that is intrinsic in making music. This, ultimately, is what makes the novel unique and interesting. Are there other books that deal with humans getting swept up in the affairs of the fey? Sure. Are there other books about music? Sure. But War For the Oaks is so much more than either of those things: it’s a story about a woman in her twenties who pursues an impractical dream, makes a band her family, and finds love—and if Eddi has to compete in a musical duel with the Queen of the Unseelie court to save her lover and her city, well SO BE IT!
Bull is a musician herself, so the scenes of making music and giving concerts really pop. Fun fact: some of the songs that War For the Oaks attributes to Eddi are songs that Bull wrote for the band Cats Laughing, which she sang in with her husband Will Shetterly, and can be found on their album Another Way to Travel. Here is the scene when Willy first auditions. As the book progresses, they get even awesomer, but I don’t want to give anything away . . .
“Carla gave Willy a pair of four-beats, and he led off with a fast rhythmic fuzzed-out riff. Carla spiked it with her high-hat cymbal on the two and four counts, and it sounded so fine that Eddi almost forgot to sing. He cut way back during the verse to leave room for her vocals and Dan’s vaguely demented repeating melody between the lines of lyrics. Between them they gave the first verse a feeling of breath-holding anticipation. Then Carla kicked in with the drum fill that signaled the chorus, Hedge and his bass came into the mix, and the waiting was over. Willy’s voice added new weight to Carla’s and Dan’s harmonies. The bridge, when they got to it, was nice and tight, and Willy’s lead break was manic, crisp, and tasty. Eddi could feel them all catching fire off each other, responding to each other’s experiments. Carla ended the whole thing with a Keith Moon-like percussive frenzy.” (84-5)
Published in 1987, War For the Oaks was really on the cutting edge of the emerging genre of urban fantasy, and Emma Bull was hugely influential. She also wrote Finder, a novel in the Borderlands universe, one of my favorite worlds! Bull also wrote a screenplay based on War For the Oaks, which was made into a short film directed by Will Shetterly, in which Bull plays the Seelie Queen. Holy amazingface, Batman—you can watch it here.
Tithe (The Modern Faerie Tales #1) by Holly Black (2002). Kaye is used to living in crap motel rooms and dingy apartments, touring with her mom’s band. But when they end up back in New Jersey for a spell, Kaye rescues a mysterious stranger and finds herself in the middle of a power struggle between two Faerie kingdoms. In an interesting turn, given that Tithe is a contemporary inheritor of War For the Oaks, Holly Black also co-edited the most recent Borderlands anthology!
Elsewhere by Will Shetterly (1992). The first of two books that Shetterly wrote in the Borderland universe, this is a totally delightful romp of magic, motorcycles, bookstores, gingerbread men, and the lost heir of faerie! See my full review here.
Pattern Recognition by William Gibson (2003). It’s not usually thought of as a YA novel, but Pattern Recognition features one of my favorite young heroines ever, Cayce Pollard, a quasi-trendspotter who has been hired to trail mysterious film clips that are popping up on the internet in the hopes of figuring out what about them has commanded such an intense subcultural following. A really amazing book.
procured from: Blue Bicycle Books, a used book store in Charleston, SC, while on vacay with my mom. (Check out their awesome YALLfest, a YA festival—get it, YA + y’all, because it’s the South; get it, get it?!) We sat reading in the park, killing time before dinner, and this very polite homeless gentleman ambled over to us and asked what I was reading. When I showed him the cover, he said, “Oh, yes, the war for the oaks. I was in that war.” Indeed, sir.