Zeitgeist again: War for the Oaks

Reading War For the Oaks almost 25 years after its publication, I wonder if it isn’t one of those works (like Spy Who Came in From the Cold or Boris the Bear) that won’t age well.
The 1987 Emma Bull novel is set in Minneapolis. The protagonist, Eddi is chosen as a human participant in a turf war between the Seelie and Unseelie courts of Faerie (a mortal champion’s presence negates faerie immortality, so without one, nobody dies and the battle never ends). She is less than enthused (they didn’t ask nicely) and has to balance her coerced obligations with her efforts to set up a new band.
The book was (I believe) one of the groundbreakers in urban fantasy with its depiction of faerie forces at play in a down-to-Earth Minneapolis. As with a lot of groundbreaking books, it suffers from reading it years later because what was once novel is now routine (although Charles DeLint’s Jack the Giant Killer came out at about the same time and I didn’t have that problem with it).
I also wonder if the very fact it’s so solidly set in what was once contemporary America hurts it. Eddi’s a musician, so we get lots of 1980s music and pop culture references. At the time, they’d have emphasized that all this eerie stuff was taking place now, in the real world; in the 21st century, it’s a period piece. I wonder if readers too young to even remember the 1980s will find that a drawback.
Maybe not. The decade’s music is still popular (it’s one of the few things that can get a crowd of Mensans to get up and dance) and the cultural gap between a struggling band in the 1980s and now isn’t as deep or foreign as the Cold War setting of Spy Who Came in From the Cold or say, a 1950s singing group (as I mentioned a while back, the pace of stylistic change seems to be slowing).
And as I said about Boris the Bear, worrying about whether your story will be relevant to the zeitgeist 20 years later isn’t usually the right tack to take. If I’d read it when it first came out, I think I’d have loved the contemporary references; if that dates it faster, maybe that’s a fair tradeoff.
Even allowing for all that, the book didn’t blow me away as much as I’d hoped. It’s got a lot of good stuff in it (I really like the phouka, and I generally love fae-based stories), but the musical stuff largely bored me. I’m not sure if that’s a flaw in Bull’s writing or that there’s just so much musical stuff and I’m not a music person (if Eddi had been an actor I’d probably have responded better). Still, I enjoyed it and I’m glad I finally read it.


Filed under Reading, Writing

6 responses to “Zeitgeist again: War for the Oaks

  1. I read this one for the first time lately, too, and didn’t enjoy it as much as I expect it to. I sort of panned it, actually–I put a review on Goodreads, but not on my blog. 😛 My issue was not the pop culture references, which I really enjoyed, but with the shallowness of the writing: I thought a lot of really interesting things were introduced, but not thoroughly developed. I also thought that the Phouka got WAY too schmoopy when he fell in love with Eddie–it made his character about 300% less interesting.

    Have you read Holly Black’s Tithe? It’s basically the same story–if MUCH darker–but I thought it worked a lot better. I seem to be in the minority there, though. Have only read a couple of de Lint’s, and Jack wasn’t one of them. Interesting to hear what you thought of this one!

    • frasersherman

      I haven’t read Tithe but I’ll put it on the list. I much preferred Jack the Giant-Killer which was also darker–now that I’m thinking about it, they talk about how much danger Eddi is in much more than she actually gets in danger. And yeah, you have a point about the phouka.

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