Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Book Review: War for the Oaks

I've done all these recent reviews for modern fantasy novels, so I'm surprised that I haven't mentioned Emma Bull's War for the Oaks yet. I read it before these others (Bad Magic, The Last Hot Time, and The Arcanum), and I consider it to be the best of the bunch. The novel centers around Eddi McCandry, a rock-and-roller who leaves her no-good boyfriend and his crappy band to start her own. Along the way, she gets mixed up with the Fey, including a phouka who is sometimes a man, sometimes a dog, but always very charming and strange.

The plot is familiar, but not necessarily in a bad way. The Fey need Eddi in their fight between the Seelie and Unseelie courts. Though she is recruited by the Seelie court, the Unseelie court has plans for her as well. Along the way, the story of her band's creation and rise in the local music scene is paralleled with the war between the Fey, and elements from each feed into the other in interesting ways.

Emma Bull's strength lies in her ability to incorporate "fairy" and "real" elements together so that there is no clear delineation between them. There are moments in the novel where Eddi's "normal" life suddenly has something decidedly non-normal intrude upon it, but the thing that works for me about War for the Oaks is the feeling that, even in the seemingly "normal" moments, something magical, exciting, and dangerous is out there, and probably closer than you think.

Not everything about the novel works. There is a twist that everyone sees coming, and the fascination with describing every street and Minneapolis can leave those who have never visited that city feeling left out. The main characters rather predictably form a band, and each of their concerts consists of doing covers of famous rock songs they all know. Unfortunately, I knew a grand total of perhaps one of those songs, so again I felt somewhat un-hip and excluded. Finally, there are times when I wished the narrator described things a little bit more thoroughly, especially the faerie scenes, but I do think that under-describing is better than over-describing, as it leaves things to the reader's imagination rather than going through several pages of exactly what every single type of faerie looks like.

I think this book has rightly earned its reputation as a classic of the modern fantasy genre. It can be a little bit uneven, as is often the case with first novels, but that somehow adds to the charm, as the novel isn't over-polished.

I recommend this novel to fans of Neil Gaiman and fantasy.

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