the Little Red Reviewer

War For the Oaks, by Emma Bull

Posted on: May 23, 2013

War for the OaksWar for the Oaks, by Emma Bull

published in 1987

where I got it: library











I wish I’d read War For The Oaks years ago. I wish this had been the book that had introduced me to Urban Fantasy. People, this is what Urban Fantasy can be. This is what it should be. Lyrical and funny, shadowy and mysterious, War For The Oaks grabbed me on page one and never let go. I kept trying to read bits and pieces of it out-loud to my other half, who kept telling me to quit that, because he wanted to read it next.

The novel opens with last show of Eddi McCandry’s band. Her boyfriend Stuart is a mess, the band isn’t playing what the bar patrons want to hear, a both a band break-up and a romantic one follow in quick succession. Good thing on both fronts, or Eddi would never get the chance to start an even better band with her best friend Carla.

When a Phouka shows up in her life and announces he is her new bodyguard against the Unseelie, Eddi tells him to get lost and threatens to call the cops. She might be recently unemployed, but she’s not crazy. It’s funny, because we’ve all read urban fantasies, we’d all know a pooka or a Sidhe when we see one (or at least like to think we would), but Eddi doesn’t. She’s never read an urban fantasy novel before, and she doesn’t know how these stories go.

War is brewing between the Seelie and Unseelie courts. Violence is a hobby of the fae, as they heal fast and rarely die. But when death is necessary, when a battle truly matters, they bring a mortal onto the battlefield. For an hour, an evening, or months at a time, so long as the chosen mortal is alive and breathing on the battlefield, all the present fae are momentarily as mortal as you or I.

Eddi is their chosen mortal, and no matter what anyone says, this isn’t an honor. She’s a tool towards the destruction of creatures she doesn’t understand, and who don’t understand her. Also, the Unseelie would like nothing more than to simply kill her before the war begins.

It takes the Phouka a little while to convince Eddi that he’s not an escaped mental patient and that her life really is in danger. But there are other fae infiltrating her life as well, most of whom mean her no harm. Again, we’ve all read urban fantasy before, so we know what to look for. But Eddi just thinks some of her new acquaintances are weird and a little shy.

War for the Oaks wears the armor of an urban fantasy, but on the inside, it’s a tale about empowerment wound around a love letter to the fashion and music of the 80s. If you grew up in or around Minneapolis, you’ll recognize plenty of landmarks, even those that have been renamed, and I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the Phouka’s physical appearance and fashion choices remind me of a certain musical prodigy from Minneapolis who was fond of lace cuffs and high heeled boots.

Once the characters are introduced and the plot gets going, there’s no escape for Eddi. I wasn’t able to put the book down, so there wasn’t any escape for me either, and I was fine with that. The fae war begins on May day, and could last until All Hallow’s Eve. Her life is in danger every moment she spends away from the Battlefield, and the formal battles must be scheduled by the fae courts, who have trapped themselves in old patterns of ceremony and manners.

 The world building is very slow, and while that was fine for me, it may frustrate some readers. On more than one occasion, Eddi demands that Phouka tell her exactly what is going on. Nearly every time he responds with vague answers and half truths. You’d think that would stall the story, but it does the exact opposite. I’m practically begging Emma Bull to tell me more, I found myself turning pages faster than I could read them.

 At first blush, War for the Oaks raised a few redflags for me, blaring with urban fantasy tropes that usually annoy me, like the requirement that random fae creatures speak in over-ornamented language, a character’s surprise identity which wasn’t a surprise at all, and the dreaded love triangle. Uggg, a love triangle? Are you kidding me? But that’s the power of Emma Bull. I was looking forward to what strange combination of floral themed phrases would next come out of the Phouka’s mouth, I didn’t mind that only Eddi was surprised by a reveal, and even the romantic plot failed to bother me as I’d expected.

I tend to avoid love triangles like poison ivy. Even in movies, they too often feel contrived and forced, with romantic leads all but screaming “I’m the romantic lead!!!” when they walk into a room. And that’s how Bull got me. No one in this book is interested in a relationship, Bull doesn’t set anyone us as a romantic lead, nothing ever felt like a plot device. The relationships that developed felt the opposite of contrived. They felt like a subtle change of seasons.

There’s so much I’ve left out of this review. So much more I want to tell you about War for the Oaks. I may gripe on Urban Fantasy, but I do love a well told faerie tale. I love how every author gives a slightly different spin on things while staying true to “the rules”. But more than that, I love when an author chooses their words wisely (and Emma Bull does), and the reader can interpret everything how they choose. I don’t want to tell you the best parts of this book because I want to you to come to them fresh, without my interpretation of them. Let it be like the first time you saw a favorite painting in the flesh, or the first time you heard a particular piece of music played live.

 There’s a reason Emma Bull has the following she does. There’s a reason so many fans judge other works of Urban Fantasy against War for the Oaks.

Do yourself a favor and just read it this book. Even if you don’t love it as much as I did, at least now you’ll know what everyone’s been talking about all this time.

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27 Responses to "War For the Oaks, by Emma Bull"

Soooo pleased that you like this one. :D I agree completely with your first point – I wish I’d found this before I trawled through so much UF that I enjoyed less. It’s always fun to find out someone loves a book that you love! :D

One of my all time favorites…although I was a near-adult when it came out.

your secret is safe with me. and I plan on being a near-adult for the next 20 years, at least!

I read this book a few years back. It didn’t do anything for me, and while I was left wondering what all the hype was about, I am glad i read it for the ‘historical’ literature purposes. Everyone says urban fantasy started with this book.

I think this book didn’t click with me for 2 reasons. I was raised country – both in music and in location. While I excitedly, and whole-heartedly, escaped one, I still live in the country. So, almost all of the music references were lost on me. I have been to the east coast twice and to the Minneapolis airport once. So, the landmarks, etc. didn’t do anything for me.

Still, it was cute.

that all makes perfect sense. If the book had focused a kind of music I wasn’t familiar with, or say, took place in Florida or Texas or some other area I’m not familiar with, it wouldn’t have pulled me in one bit. As much as I loved Robert Jackson Bennett’s American Elsewhere, it takes place in a rural area, and I was like “what do you mean, there isn’t anything for miles? how can there not be anything?”. I’m used to small cities, or suburban areas.

I didn’t know all of the bands mentioned in the book, maybe half of them, but this is totally my kind of music! I’ve been to Minneapolis a few times (I have family in Minnesota), but I don’t know that city at all, so I had no idea if the places she mentioned were real places or not. but i’ve spent a lot of time in decent sized mid-west cities, so lots of the “city stuff” translated well for me.

She and Steven Brust played together, perhaps still do, so she is still on my Cool List even if I didn’t enjoy this book so much.

I’m mostly a newcomer to the Urban Fantasy scene, having just read the Dresden Files, but I’ll be sure to check this out when I can find a copy!

it’s very different from Dresden Files, as in there’s no focus on solving a mystery, or using magic to learn something. This is more an adventure story, and you should really give it a try! :D

Emma Bull is an author on my list to check out. I was introduced to Urban Fantasy by Charles de Lint and then Terri Windling and I know from reading about her that Emma Bull is in that same wheelhouse and I have no doubt I would like her stuff. Love the cover on this one, and it sounds great.

Like you I tend to avoid the dreaded love triangle when I can. Not a big fan of the device.

Charles DeLint was my introduction to UF, even though his is technically closer to magical realism, maybe? Yarrow, Greenmantle, those were my first novels of his, and I loved them. I think they came out within in a few years of War for the Oaks. Which Windling titles do you recommend? I have some anthologies she edited, but I don’t know that I’ve read any of her novels.

I’m SO happy there was no mention of romance at all on the back cover of War for the Oaks. I don’t mind romance, I don’t mind a few hot sex scenes, but I don’t usually go for stories where romance is the focus. Romance certainly isn’t the focus of War for the Oaks (Eddi don’t got time for that!), and it was very funny to me that OF COURSE the one day I’m reading this in public, I get to the hot sex scene!

The only book of Windling’s I have read is The Wood Wife and it remains a favorite.

Wasn’t it deLint (along with Windling and a few others) who coined the term mythopoeic? I guess I see his stories more that way than UF, but UF has come to be a pretty big ‘catch all’ phrase for me. Should be because his stuff is certainly far different than say, Butcher’s or the other fiction labeled as Urban Fantasy.

YES. I wish all UF were like this. I’d like UF better. Because this was the first UF I read, the rest of the genre just makes me want to cry. This book does not get nearly as much attention as it deserves.

I was surprised how hard it was to find a copy, I had to get it through interlibrary loan. Charles deLint books from around the same time are available everywhere, how come this one isn’t? Nothing against Charles deLint, he’s awesome, but how come this title is so under the radar?

Need to read me some Emma Bull.

yeah you do. You’d LOVE this one. or at least, I hope you will!

Glad you enjoyed this one! I haven’t read it yet, but I did give it to my little sister a couple years ago as a gift, and she loved it. I may have to wander over to the library across the street and check this one out. :)

I really need to read more Emma Bull. I read Territory awhile back and absolutely loved it – the atmosphere just oozes off the page.

This was my first UF (like, 20 years ago) and it’s still my favourite. It’s on my Top Five of All Time list! I’m so glad you loved it, I wish more people did.

I think I have an e-copy of this that randomly gave away some years ago. I tend to look at urban fantasy with a skeptical eye though, so I wonder if I would enjoy this. Your review may have intrigued me enough to check it out when other pressing commitments settle; we’ll have to see.
I may have to skim the steamy bits though, since I always read on a crowded rush-hour bus. :p

you can read the beginning on the bus and see if you like it, the steamy bits don’t show up till way later. ;)

Just dropped in to say Happy Memorial Day, Red.

Happy Memorial day to you too. I’ll be back in town in a few days, can get back to regular posting.

I’m sort of glad I didn’t read Emma Bull early on. It would have been sad if I had been comparing all of urban fantasy to War for the Oaks. I need to read more things by her! I have still only read War for the Oaks.

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.

This has been on my list for a long time. Need to move it up.

This is one of my favorite books of all time. I have owned my copy since the book first came out, when Charles deLint recommended it. One of the icons of Urban Fantasy!!!

[…] War for the Oaks by Emma Bull (1987) – It’s been said Bull wrote the book on Urban Fantasy.  I say no one has yet come close to what she did with this novel. Bull spoiled me on UF the way Banks spoiled me on Space Opera. Nothing else even compares. […]

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