I was all lined up to read The Chronicles of Amber for this Book Bingo category when I found a copy of War for the Oaks at the bookstore. Known for being one of the first urban fantasy novels ever written, Emma Bull’s debut has been on my wish list for too long for me to ignore it, especially when it has a brand-spanking-new cover, an introduction by Naomi Alderman, and is right there in front of me on the shelf. Zelazny will have to wait.
It also feels serendipitous that I read War for the Oaks now. This book reminded me so strongly of my best friend from school, M, who passed away this time last year. She would have loved this book. She would have loved Eddi, and the band, and the Seelie queen, and most especially the phouka. In fact, this is the kind of book she would have recommended to me with all her wonderful enthusiasm. She was a lot like Eddi – strong, generous, an incredibly talented musician, quick-witted and always able to laugh at herself (she had a motorbike for a time, too) – and my whole reading of War for the Oaks is inextricably linked up with remembering her. I’d like to think that she did find this book, and that we would have talked about it the next time we met up, because it saddens me more than I can say that I won’t get to talk to her about it now.
“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 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.”
So, Eddi McCandry is a guitarist and singer who gets drawn unwillingly into a war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts of faerie that is playing out in Minneapolis. She is drafted by the Seelie side, and her purpose is to lend mortality to those on the battlefield – by her being there those fighting, normally immortal, can die. She gains a faerie bodyguard, a phouka (shapeshifter), to protect her from Unseelie sabotage and through her relationship with him she comes to take a more active interest in the battle.
It’s hard not to like Eddi McCandry. From her opening scene playing a difficult gig with a band on the verge of splitting up and an idiot lead-singer boyfriend, right through to her and her band’s final performance, she is frank and warm and funny and brave. It’s hard not to like Carla and Dan, and Hedge and Willy, and the phouka too, and the forming of Eddi’s new band is written beautifully. It made me think of that adage that friends are the family you choose for yourself – the band play to each other’s strengths when they perform, and come to do the same in real life as they all become embroiled in Eddi’s struggle. And Emma Bull is a musician and singer herself, so War for the Oaks is all about the music. She writes about music with a mad poetic beauty. I don’t know anything about how a band works together, and I loved loved loved her descriptions of how Eddi and the others all bring their own personalities and magic to the music they are making. I was also fascinated by her descriptions of Eddi’s role as a sort of conductor of the performance; when I’ve watched live music I’ve always assumed that everyone’s just playing their parts and by some happy coincidence they’re all in time. I didn’t realise that they are all riffing off one another, following each other’s cues and leads to create something mercurial and magical and of-the-moment. Shows what I know.
Oh, and Eddi’s wardrobe! That’s something M would have waxed lyrical about. She had a fabulous, slightly theatrical style that I admired a lot, and Eddi’s outfits would have caught her imagination, I think. The Seelie queen’s outfits too. And most definitely the phouka’s. He would have appealed to her romantic streak with his brocade coats and ruffled shirts. I sort of imagined him as a cross between Morris Chestnut and Prince, with all that raking his hands through his hair and changing outfits every five minutes. Yeah, M would have loved him. And while the romance between Eddi and the phouka was not something that had me swooning or daydreaming, it’s well-written and I was rooting for them both. (That doesn’t mean I’ve gone mushy or anything!)
Perhaps my favourite thing was Bull’s representation of the creatures of faerie. Whether Seelie or Unseelie, they cannot be trusted and they don’t have Humanity’s best interests at heart. They are either stunningly beautiful or grotesque, always slightly alien, and never cute and fluffy. Their upper classes are vain and selfish and their lower classes little more than slaves, (actually, I’d have liked to read more about this class division. It’s hinted in the story that this is something the phouka wants to change, and that he’s using Eddi to do so, but we never really see or hear much more about it after that). As our main representative of the faerie race, the phouka is brilliantly enigmatic at times, and positively contrary at others. It’s a little thing, but I also liked that he introduces himself to Dan as ‘Robin Goode’ (i.e. Robin Goodfellow or Puck, the “shrewd and knavish sprite” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream), which gave me a little private chuckle. It is through him we learn of the weird workings of the faerie world and the customs and laws that Eddi has become caught up in, and it’s all beautifully, lovingly realised in HD detail.
In her introduction (which is just perfect), Naomi Alderman says “you could put together a pretty great playlist of the songs mentioned in the novel – in fact, I might!”. This prompted me to write down all the music mentioned as I read the book to kind of gain an extra dimension. A lot of it was stuff I hadn’t heard of, like the Replacements and Rue Nouveau; some of it stuff I listen to fairly regularly, like Kate Bush and David Bowie. It prompted a conversation between Thumbs and me (he’s much more knowledgeable about music than I am, having lived longer, ha ha), which eventually led to his mentioning a cover of Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill that he heard on the radio recently. Which led to us looking it up on Youtube, naturally. Which brings me back to M. Kate Bush was something of an icon to us both when we were in school together. And this cover, by Jade Bird, feels very appropriate both to how I imagined Eddi McCandry sounding when she sings, and to my memories of M – you can listen to it here if you want to.
Jade Bird has also done a cover of Johnny Cash’s I’ve Been Everywhere which I watched directly after with a new fascination, looking for all those little glances between the musicians as they perform together – you can listen to that one here, which I suggest because it’s much more cheerful.