Jun 15 2018

War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

War for the Oaks had a band-naming scene before the name of your next band became a Thing. It had fantastic conflicts in a downtown setting before vampires were ever thought to be sparkly. It has strong female protagonists as if that is the most natural thing in the world, which of course it is. It is set in the Minneapolis that Prince had shown the world in Purple Rain, three years before the publication of War for the Oaks. Prince himself might well have been playing at one of the venues the characters drive past, or a club they went to in between scenes actually shown in the novel.

In a city where rock and funk are crossing their boundaries, the divisions between the mundane and the magical are coming down too. Eddi McCandry doesn’t know that at first, she just knows she’s breaking up with her awful boyfriend and quitting his band at the same time. She doesn’t need that shit. In the breakup, she keeps the drummer, Carla DiAmato, who’s a good friend, too.

On the way home from that ill-fated gig, a man follows Eddi through the downtown streets. She tries to run, but he appears in front of her or beside her when she was sure she left him far behind. She trips on a flight of stairs and loses consciousness.

As her senses return, she hears two voices. One, she discovers, belongs to a dog. The other is

A woman [who] rose from the [fountain’s] water. She seemed to be standing on its surface, to be a coalescence of water into a woman-shaped pillar. Her long gown looked like water, too, spilling over her breasts and straight down in a current of darkness and green-shot light. Where it reached the surface of a pool, it disappeared into it, indistinguishable. Her hair seemed fluid as well, but snowy white, pouring down around her to her feet. Her face and arms were moon white. (p. 18)

Things are not as they seem in Minneapolis.

Readers and Eddi discover things at the same pace, seeing the world reveal another aspect that had been there all along, hidden in half-sight. War for the Oaks is not obviously deep, but it is obviously, and tremendously, fun. It’s the kind of book that had me tapping my feet in gleeful anticipation of what would happen next, and I polished it all off within 48 hours of first cracking the covers.

Why does the book work so well? Eddi and Carla and the rest seem like natural people, even the supernatural ones like the talking dog (who also has an incarnation as a dapper gent) and the woman from the fountain. One slightly odd thing leads to another odder thing, and before the break between sets, Eddi is part of a fight between rival courts of the fae folk. Bull leads Eddi and readers into the other world step by step. It’s appealing, but also appalling, and by the time Eddi knows most of what is really happening, the only way out is all the way through and, if she survives, out the other side. It’s a great jam.

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