What We’re Reading: War for the Oaks by Emma Bull
At the Literarty Party a few weeks ago, Rob Callahan commented on the sci-fi and fantasy community here in the Twin Cities and made mention of Emma Bull. Callahan and I chatted for a bit about the fact that both of us have never read Bull’s most well known novel, War for the Oaks (1987), yet both of us have copies sitting on our shelves. So I decided, finally, that I’d waited too long.
Bull is considered a pioneer of “urban fantasy.” In War for the Oaks the “urban setting” is Minneapolis and St. Paul, where I grew up, and the parks and music venues these cities contain. At this point I should admit a couple of biases, the first being that I became enamored of books by reading fantasy novels like War for the Oaks. I still love fantasy, and I’m uncomfortable with the separation between fantasy fiction and “literary” fiction. But that’s a topic for another post. My other bias is that I love the Twin Cities and the music scene here with all of my heart. Knowing that, I jumped headlong into this book and didn’t look back.
War for the Oaks follows Eddi McCandry, a rock n’ roller whose band and relationship fall apart at the same time, who gets drafted into a war between faeries. At first, Eddi rebels against the faerie wishes, but as she learns the context of the dispute she warms to her new friends and accepts her role in the war. The story isn’t all battles and otherworldly beings, however, and we also get the story of Eddi owning her musician leanings as she forms a new band, unwittingly pulling her best friend into the faerie world as well.
My biases and nostalgic feelings towards fantasy novels and Minneapolis aside, War for the Oaks feels like a first novel. All of the fun parts of a fantasy are present—the heightened sense of reality, magic, epic battles—but the writing occasionally falls into the tropes of the genre: a too clear definition between good and evil, a misfit who accepts herself and becomes a hero, and some unsurprising romance. Thankfully, Eddi is a strong female main character in a genre lacking in strong women, even today. Even though the story is occasionally so predictable that the reader sees what’s next pages before it comes, Bull’s character and book are redeemed by a strong sense of place, and a main character who, simply by being female, fills a void in the fantasy genre.
I look forward to reading more of Emma Bull’s work and seeing how she’s grown as a writer in the last twenty-five years. For me, War for the Oaks will go on my list of fantasy books that I can pull out and read in an afternoon to reignite the sense of fun I get from reading—that sense of fun I first learned when I was growing up reading fantasy novels and listening to local music.
How do your biases color your opinions of books? Do you try to leave those biases aside, or simply embrace them?