Tuesday, April 3, 2018

War for the Oaks

Well, since I've been on an urban fantasy kick lately, I decided to give Emma Bull's War for the Oaks a shot.  War for the Oaks caught my eye at a little bookshop a year or two ago; it's apparently one of the pioneering works of urban fantasy.

War for the Oaks is the story of Eddi McCamdry, a rock and roll singer and guitar player.  She decides to leave her boyfriend and the band they were in together; her friend, Carla, who is the drum player, decided to leave the band too.  Carla was driving Eddi home, but Eddi decides to walk the rest of the way; on her walk, she is drafted into a war between the Fae.  For their war to be serious, they need a mortal tied to the war.  The Seelie court decided that Eddi would be their mortal.  So they assign her the phouka, a shape-changer who can be either man or dog (and the one who was responsible for Eddi being drafted into the war in the first place) to guard her.  The phouka refuses to leave her side, so Eddi decides (at the suggestions of both Carla and the phouka) to start a band.  Carla knows a keyboarder, but neither of them know a good lead guitarist or bassist, so they put an ad out and attract some first-rate talent: shy Hedge who only mumbles while speaking but is a fantastic bassist, and handsome Willy Silver, who plays a mean lead guitar and electric fiddle.

Eddi is right off the bat attracted to Willy.  She takes him to bed after their first date, even though that's normally not her style.  But at the first faerie engagement at Minehaha Falls, she discovers that Willy isn't human.  And he wasn't exactly playing fairly with her emotions.  She later discovers that Hedge also isn't human.  She gives the two of them the same choice: they can stay in the band if they want to, but she refuses to keep them if they're just forced to be there by the Seelie queen (the Lady).  Both agree to stay, and hence the band Eddi and the Fey is born for real.

Meanwhile, Eddi slowly finds herself falling for the phouka.  He's a trickster sort of fae, constantly getting on Eddi's nerves for the heck of it.  But he has always been straight with her.  During the first engagement, when Eddi is formally bound to the battlefield, the phouka gives her an ointment which lets her see through faerie glamour; she looks around in wonder and finds the phouka looking exactly the same as he always does.  The ointment allows her to go onto the battlefield without being coerced (the phouka even admits that if she had chosen to run at the end, he wouldn't have stopped her then - but she chose to stay due to his friendship).  They manage to survive the first engagement, even with the phouka giving away their hidden position to save the Seelie fighters from being ambushed on their flank.  Eddi even comes to the rescue of the brownie Meg, who ends up cleaning Eddi's apartment for her.  It isn't until the summer solstice though that the phouka and Eddi finally admit their love for one another (and Eddi takes a bit to convince because she's afraid it's just another game to him).

The summer solstice fae party also brings Eddi the information that the Unseelie queen, the Queen of Air and Darkness, has captured Willy.  She wants the Seelie queen to give her the next battle in exchange for Willy's life.  The Lady refuses, but Eddi pleads with her not to let the Dark Queen know.  Eddi instead comes up with a daring plan that will save Willy from the Dark Queen's clutches.  It requires the help of all of her friends, including Carla, her keyboarder (who is also Carla's boyfriend), the phouka, Meg, and Hedge (who was actually feeding information to the Dark Queen - he agrees to give the Queen false information for Eddi).  They rescue Willy, but he dies in the battle that follows; that prompts Eddi to challenge the Queen of Air and Darkness to a fair duel.  The Dark Queen accepts, and names her challenge: at Eddi and the Fey's next show, they will have to fight for the audience.  The Queen will use her magic to stop the audience from dancing; Eddi must use her to get them to dance.  The duel was supposed to be just between the two of them, but the Lady comes to spectate and names Eddi her champion.  Now if Eddi wins, the Dark Queen and the Unseelie court must leave Minneapolis.  But if the Dark Queen wins, the Seelie court must leave; plus the Dark Queen will take the phouka's life.

So there's a concert, and Eddi wins.  The end.

Honestly, that was literally how the book ended.  I was getting near the end and wondering how it was going to wrap up in so few pages.  And then it just sort of did, in a really hard to follow but quick musical magical battle.  Which was an honest shame, because prior to that I was rather enjoying the book.

I think my enjoyment was largely thanks to the characters.  I liked the phouka, especially at the beginning of the book.  Well, even at the end, where he had fun lines like "I'd thought in terms of seeds, you see, and never dreamed that what I had loosed on the Court was a madwoman with a crowbar."  But pretty much all the "main" characters, like Carla, or Hedge, or Meg, were interesting people populating the world.  Oh, I should also mention that the city was kind of a character in this book too.  I really wish I knew Minneapolis a bit more to have followed along with where everything was taking place better.

One thing that was rather a quirk of the book was the preoccupation with how people were dressed.  The fashion itself was straight out of the 80's (like turtleneck sweaters - I'd almost forgotten they existed until Eddi decided to put one on).  But Eddi details like every outfit she's in, or the phouka wears.  I can't think of another book that I've read with that much detail on clothing.

Other than the weird abruptness of the ending, I also didn't like how the book was a bit lax on time cues.  It would jump like a month or month and a half forward with little warning, which made it a bit hard to follow at times (until it would finally let you know where abouts you were in time).  The story is all linear (thankfully!) so you wouldn't think this would be that much of a problem, but strangely it kind of was.

Overall, I did enjoy War for the Oaks.  The story still holds up rather well in the urban fantasy genre, even though the book is like thirty years old (it's just a little bit dated, that's all.  Nothing wrong with that though - it shows the 80's rather well).  I just wish the ending hasn't felt so rushed.

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