Friday, October 5, 2012

Magic in a Time of War: A Book Review on War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

Eddi McCandry is having a rough night. She’s quit the band she was playing in and gotten out of a bad relationship. Now she has muddle through her opportunities and figure out the next step in her life. But on her walk home, Eddi ends up forced into taking part in a Faerie War, where she’ll be used as an advantage that will make all the difference in deciding the fates of everything she holds dear, from the world of the faerie folk to her own life as a musician.

War for the Oaks is the debut novel from Emma Bull, considered to be one of the leading novels that helped define the modern urban fantasy genre. I stumbled across it during a trip to my local bookstore, having never heard of it, but being intrigued by the title and description, I decided to give it a go.

In terms of writing and plot, Bull has a clear sense of voice and description. The writing is crisp, clear, leaving nothing muddled or left to be mistaken. The plot progresses at an even pace which leaves the characters to grow as they should and for the necessary plot points to take seed and grow into a very interesting story. The prologue sets things up nicely, with an intriguing exchange between two nameless voices as they discuss the human they have chosen to aid their cause. It sets up the sense of feeling that permeates the rest of the novel, the warring sides within this army, showing the tension of those who seem to disregard human life as opposed to those that value it. This exchange is picked up again within a chapter or two, answering the questions left by the prologue and setting the foundation for the rest of the novel’s themes of struggle and the survival of the true essence of love, honor and music.

In terms of characters, lead heroine Eddi McCandry is a tough guitarist with an incredible penchant for loyalty. Realizing that she has no other choice but to deal with her situation of being essentially drafted for a war, she makes the best effort she can to lead the life that she wants. And why was she forced into the war? Because faeries are immortal; they need a human soul linked to their war in order for their fighting to have real consequences. And they've chosen Eddi as their mortal. Rather than curling up in a ball and crying, running away to the ends of the earth or bitching and moaning for rest of the story, she works to put together a new band, the kind of band that will play the music she wants to and can still respect herself for, even with the threat of war hanging over her head. And despite her initial extreme dislike for the bodyguard placed in her home, Eddi begins to make friends with both her guard and other faerie folk, making her loyalty to her friends a key point that drives her to finally join the fight that was forced upon her.

Eddi’s bodyguard position is filled by a creature known as the phouka and he is called by that as a name, as well. As their first interactions lead them to butt heads more often than not, the reader is shown that the loyal Phouka is the main source of information to the faerie realm and an incredible asset to Eddi. He protects her day and night and helps to organize the members of her new band among other mundane everyday things like making breakfast and washing dishes. The Phouka has the tendency to be overtly charming, speaking with constant flowery words and gestures. His exchanges with Eddi have the air of an overconfident jerk and a lovesick puppy, both necessary in endearing him to his charge, Eddi, who tried to ditch her place in the war before the fighting even began.

The cast of characters rounds out with various faerie and human folk. Eddi has a best friend, Carla, who plays drums in her new band and works with Eddi to understand the faerie world. There’s also Dan, Hedge and Willy Silver, the keyboardist, bassist and lead guitarist, who round out the members of Eddi’s new band. We see the faerie characters that make an active choice to integrate themselves into Eddi’s life and we also see the two Queens that are at the heart of the conflict. Some characters may seem more necessary than others but on a whole, the conflict is grand enough that while some characters may seem minor, nothing seems too out of place to make sense or ruin the plot.

The only drawback I had with the writing was in terms of the music. I’m not very music savvy, so when the writing makes use of various lyric references and descriptions of the incredible power of the musicians/instruments/music, I wasn’t swept away by the words. Instead I found myself sitting back a bit, trying not to find the idea of the magic-making music hokey. I was reading descriptions about the power that Eddi felt inside her and how she egged on her bandmates with growls and grins to get them to have fun and make great music, and all the while little ol’ me is sitting here thinking, meh. Perhaps the musicians out there are better apt to appreciate the description in these parts of the book as I am obviously ill-equipped to recognize the value of the picture provided in the narrative. Then again, musicians out there might find it just as eye-rolling inducing as I did.

Overall, there are many things to appreciate in this book. It’s not one of the best available, in fact, the plot has probably been used several times since then in various fashions in the urban fantasy genre. But it is one of the first and it won awards to prove that fact back in 1987, when it was published. Very much an enjoyable read for me, despite my misgivings about the music.

Rating: 8 Stars

Great book. In my effort to look up the rest of Emma Bull's body of work, I found that there's a short trailer/film based on War for the Oaks which was made by Emma Bull's husband, Will Shetterly. I myself will be viewing this "film" shortly. Watch it if you have the interest to see what could have happened had War for the Oaks actually made it to the big-screen, as apparently there is a script written for the book, by Bull and and her husband, already available.

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