Mining the Genre Asteroid: War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

28 Sep

Eddi McCandry is the guitarist for a band that has just broken up. Her career in rock’n’roll is going nowhere; she’s broken up with her boyfriend; and she is more than a little adrift. Luckily for Eddi, a twist of fate makes her the one selected as the talisman for the conflict between two warring factions of faerie:  Seelie and Unseelie. They need a mortal present in order to be able to actually war against each other and physically battle, and Eddi has gotten the job. Add in a Phouka keeper to shepherd her through the runup to the Faerie confrontation, Eddi’s attempts to form a new band and find herself and her musical voice, and a gigantic helping of late 1980’s Minneapolis.

And did I mention the Unseelie are trying to kill her?warfortheoaks

Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks(1987) is one of the ur-texts, along with writers like Charles De Lint, of the subgenre that we now call Urban Fantasy. Firmly set in Minneapolis, the novel uses the city and its locations as character as much as the protagonists and antagonists. War for the Oaks is therefore a pioneer in Urban Fantasy of making the city a real place, with real and tangible locations that beg readers who live near Minneapolis to go and see them. The fact that the action takes place in Minneapolis matters to the novel, to the character, to the plot. When I first visited Minneapolis, and my friends took me to Minnehaha Park (scene of the climactic confrontation in the novel), I was immediately struck by the fact that I was on consecrated literary ground that I recognized from my reading of the book some years earlier.

And the characters. Oh! The wonderful cast of characters. Eddi is our viewpoint heroine and a complicated bundle of hopes, fears and aspirations that any reader can identify and sympathize with. Her aspirations, musical and otherwise, are painful, funny, honest and true.  Surrounding her, too, are a set of interesting friends, frenemies, and compatriots. A I haven’t even mentioned the fae, especially the Phouka. No, he doesn’t have a real name in the book. One day, I am going to have to see if I can squeeze it out of Emma. If there even is one.

And the descriptive writing in War for the Oaks is just beautiful. Scenes, characters and settings are memorably evoked in the power of Bull’s language. I’ve been to, by accident and design, to many of the places in the novel, but I have never been able to capture in image what Bull captures in words:

“Near the south end of [Nicollet] mall, in front of Orchestra Hall, Peavey Plaza beckons: a reflecting pool, and a cascade that descends from towering chrome cylinders to a sunken walk-in maze of stone blocks and pillars for which “fountain” is an inadequate name. In the moonlight, it is black and silver, grey and white, full of an elusive play of shape and contrast”

And there is so much more for new readers to discover in the novel. There are songs (of course), given Eddi’s aspirations. The chapter titles are song lyrics and song titles. Even though it’s set and written in the 1980s, the snarky humor could have come out of a Jim Butcher or Laura Anne Gilman novel if not for the different references. It still holds up today and feels as modern as a 2014 novel and as timeless as the ages.

I still think that the novel doesn’t get the credit and audience it deserves. It often feels to me that readers of the book are part of a secret club of people who know about one of the most wonderful books ever written. War for the Oaks is one of those special books — the kind of book that sparks enormous passion and enthusiasm in its readers.

In keeping with that enthusiasm, photographer Tim Cooper, a member of the Minnesota SF community, kickstarted and funded a project for taking fine photos of people reading War for the Oaks in the aforementioned many and vivid Minneapolis locations from the books. The richness of evoking the Minneapolis settings in the novel, as mentioned above, lends itself to such a project. I only wish I had heard about the project at a stage where I might have been able to participate as one of its subjects.

The Retaining Wall, Minnehaha Park (Tim Cooper Photographer)

The Retaining Wall, Minnehaha Park (Tim Cooper Photographer)

War for the Oaks is one of the seminal texts within what we now call Urban Fantasy, and it is essential reading for anyone who truly wants to dive deep to understand the subgenre. And it’s a hell of a lot of fun to read. What more could you ask for? Join the club. You’ll be glad you did.


5 Responses to “Mining the Genre Asteroid: War for the Oaks by Emma Bull”

  1. Athena Andreadis (@AthenaHelivoy) September 28, 2014 at 11:22 pm #

    The Phouka was rather obviously modeled on Prince, a phenom at the time.

    • Paul Weimer September 29, 2014 at 5:51 am #

      And a Minnesota one at that. Hmmm

  2. Julia Rios September 30, 2014 at 11:04 am #

    A couple of years ago I visited the Twin Cities for a couple of days, and a friend who’d grown up there met me and showed me her favorite spots, which included some War for the Oaks sites. We jumped around inside the (then dry) fountain area of Peavey Plaza, where skateboarders were doing skate tricks. It looked like they were about to tear that area apart and remake it into something different, so my friend felt bittersweet about the visit. I was really happy that I got to see it before it changed.

    • Paul Weimer September 30, 2014 at 1:24 pm #

      Hunh. I had no idea you were in the neighborhood. 🙂

      …I probably wasn’t anybody then, anyway

      • Julia Rios October 1, 2014 at 10:11 pm #

        I didn’t know you back then.

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