By Christopher Thompson
Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks was one of the first novels in the urban fantasy genre, and although it has many characteristics in common with later examples of the style it also stands out in several ways. The protagonist Eddi McCandry, for instance, is not a leather-clad sex symbol wielding a katana in the eternal war between vampires and werewolves. Instead she’s a struggling and basically down-to-earth rock musician playing in a cover band in late-Eighties Minneapolis who happens to get drawn into a war for control of the city between the two rival fairy courts.
Eddi McCandry’s presence on the battlefield is required in order to render the otherwise-immortal fairies mortal enough to fight and kill each other. Because she’s basically a normal person who was chosen more or less arbitrarily for the role of scapegoat, Eddi is vulnerable to assassination by the other side. A fairy named Phouka is assigned to protect her, and the relationship between Eddi and Phouka is the heart of the book. War for the Oaks also delves into the classism and elitism of the fairy social structure, with Eddi encouraging her low-ranked companion to question his place in the scheme of things.
The division of the fairies into a Seelie and an Unseelie Court is familiar and widespread, but it’s actually not well-supported in the Scottish folklore it’s supposed to be derived from. There are many references in Scottish lore to a fairy court ruled by a Queen of Elphame, and to “unseelie wights” (entirely malevolent spirits) and “seelie wights” (not-entirely-malevolent spirits) but no notion of two separate fairy courts waging a struggle of light versus darkness, good versus evil or any other moralistic dualism. Scottish fairies are all more or less perilous. Emma Bull’s story, like many others, filters the Scottish lore through the familiar light versus darkness trope, so there’s a Seelie Queen whose victory would be good for Minneapolis and an Unseelie Queen whose victory would result in the spiritual death of the city.
Just because it’s different than the lore it’s derived from doesn’t make it inauthentic, though. The light versus darkness myth is deeply ingrained in American popular culture, and combining it with the Scottish fairy lore helps to ground the story in its Midwestern setting. The sense of place is a big part of what makes this story effective from the perspective of mythorealism- Bull succeeds in turning a large American city into a believable battleground for a war between fairy queens. She takes the urban environment and creates a mythology for it, making Minneapolis into a place of magic and wonder- or revealing that it always was.
The ancient religions of the pagan past were highly localized, based on the spirits of specific groves, the goddesses of particular rivers and the ruling deities of cities or tribal territories. War for the Oaks is a pagan story in this most ancient sense- myth incarnated in one very specific place.
Author of A Season of Strange Dreams, an urban fantasy novel available as a Kindle e-book from Dark Quest
“An astonishing tour de force of noir fantasy, characterized by some of the most beautifully lyrical, atmospheric writing I’ve come across in a long while. Chris Thompson skilfully blends the mean streets with the streets of dreams in this highly evocative concoction, offering the reader bafflement, dazzlement, gritty hard-boiled realism, wonder and astonishment in turn – but always delight. A Season of Strange Dreams will remain in your mind long after you’ve turned the final page.” (John Grant, co-editor of The Encyclopedia of Fantasy)