War for the Oaks by Emma Bull
I wasn’t sure what to expect from War for the Oaks. Over the course of several genre writing conventions and online discussions of urban fantasy, I knew that it was considered An Important Work. Which means that if you’ve immersed yourself in studying the genre, you can see a breaking point in what came before it and what came after it, and a casual reader might have to take your word for it. This is not to say that War for the Oaks isn’t An Important Work; I just can’t comment on that. I suspected that it was not Buffy/Angel-like, which is (right or wrong) my default standard of what urban fantasy is. I also had a vague notion that it involved the Seelie and Unseelie courts.
I’ve never been a fan of the Seelie and Unseelie courts. Unlike the regimented Greek and Roman mythologies, fairy lore always seemed to me to be nonsensically political and vaguely allegorical. No doubt, my opinions are based on the fact that the “classical mythology” taught in schools is Greek/Roman. (Forget about covering the myths of non-European cultures, we don’t even cover all of Europe!) Regardless, I’m not a fan of the fae. So, it had that against it.
Happily, the book surprised me. It’s a fast, enjoyable read. Bull obviously knows Minneapolis and imparts its beauty in a manner that avoid Tolkien-esque exposition. Speaking of Tolkien and traditional tropes of the fantasy genre, Bull obviously loves music and incorporates it into the book, but instead of lute-and-lyre poetry, Bull’s bards are rock musicians. That was probably the aspect of the book I didn’t expect and was somewhat dubious of at first. A protagonist that might save humanity through rock music is both cheesy and culturally appropriate for the late 20th century. Bull pulls it off. The characters are likeable and Phouka might make my top ten of favorite characters ever for his goofy swoon-worthy charm.
I do have two criticisms. Occasionally, the romantic relationship aspects of the story are too drawn out. I felt myself skipping a line of two to get back to the good bits. Secondly, I still don’t quite grasp the preoccupation in urban fantasy with clothing. Outfits are given way too much time. Sure; clothes make the man, are sometimes functional, and affect self-esteem, but I think more than three noted clothes changes in a book is way too many. (As a writer, I’m sure I’ll annoy readers with my preoccupation with food…)
Also read lately:
“Booth’s Ghost” by Karen Joy Fowler – Interesting story, though sometimes exhausting in its litany of names. I will assume the historical details about the Booth family are correct.