Urban Fantasy of the Finest Kind: Reviewing “War for the Oaks” by Emma Bull

Eddi reminded herself that this was not the only bass player in Minneapolis. The ads hadn’t even appeared yet. “Ahhhh … listen,” she said at last. “I’m not sure you … that this is a good idea.”

And he raised his eyes from his bass just enough to look at her. His eyes were more fluent than his mouth; they blazed contempt and hostility, they pleaded for her forbearance, her indulgence.

She winced and picked up her own guitar. “Ever heard Bram Tchaikovsky’s version of ‘I’m a Believer’?” He shook his head, but continued to watch her, his fingers poised over his stings.

“Start it,” he mumbled finally, and Eddi shrugged.

The song did kick off with only guitar. Then Carla dropped in after a few measures with a series of snare drum punches, and Dan’s synthesizer yowled across it all.

Then, in precisely the right place, the bass came in. It began as if the Rocky Mountains had begun to walk. It sounded like the voice of the magma under the earth’s crust, and it picked up the whole song and rolled it forward like water exploding out of a breaking dam. They were suddenly tight, all four of them, as if they were a single animal and that monster heartbeat was their own. Eddi listened wonderingly as they played the complicated stop beats in the chorus with respectable precision. She was dimly aware that she was playing some of the best guitar of her life.

When they were done, Eddi looked around and saw her own amazement on Carla’s and Dan’s faces. “Well,” she said, and, unable to think of anything to add, said it again.

No one declared the newcomer to be the band’s bass player. It would have been beside the point. Eddi only wanted to see if they could make other songs sound like that. She had no idea if he could sing; given his willingness to talk, it seemed unlikely. But for bass like that, she could sacrifice a harmony voice.

I have never read any book before that so well made me understand the synergy and energy of a band until I read this book. I would think that probably holds for any band playing any sort of music, on varying levels.

If that were all that there were to War for the Oaks it would be interesting but not worth recommending. Not since Neverwhere by Neill Gaiman have I read such wonderful urban fantasy. The book begins with Eddi who is having a very bad night. She has broken up with her boyfriend, which also means their band is now kaput, and then she finds herself in the dark city streets fleeing a truly terrifying vicious dog … who suddenly changes into a man. Thus begins Eddi’s coercion into being the mortal being needed by the Seelie Court of Faerie for their upcoming war with the Unseelie Court. Ostensibly the Seelie Court are the good guys but as these beings all are operating under completely foreign rules it is often difficult to tell the difference. Eddie is left with the dog/man, otherwise known as a phouka, as a bodyguard as she goes about her regular life of forming a band while waiting for the war to begin.

This is all a pale description of a rich story that pulls the reader into the world of Emma Bull’s making. We learn about champions, love, truth, honor … and , of course, musicians.

When I read Bull’s most recent book, Territory which was a fascinating blend of magic and the Old West, I reacted by ordering copies as Christmas gifts for my family. I had the same desire after finishing this book this morning. Highly recommended.

SPOILER
Reader’s note for parents of YA readers:
Eddi does have an affair though details are not described. She later has another with an encounter that is a bit more descriptive but not graphic. The first is excused due to undue “faerie” influence and she refuses to resume it based on moral grounds. The second other is from true love. Both are handled well and nothing that makes an adult reader blink twice as part of this genre. This is the sort of book I would have read quite eagerly as a high school student.

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