Do ya, do ya, do ya wanna dance?
With winter a fading memory and the promise of summer growing stronger, the Beamers took a look at the eternal battles among the Faerie (not fairy!) Folk, scored with a rock soundtrack, courtesy of Emma Bull in her seminal urban fantasy, The War for the Oaks. Though the title oaks made no appearance, we were regaled with courts and queens of Light and of Dark, and brownies and currant buns for breakfast, all brought together by a budding musician and her supernatural guardian/guard dog.
The Ever-More Battle
Set in the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, The War for the Oaks is a tale of conflict between the Seelie (“happy”) Court and their rivals, the Unseelie Court, two groups of supernatural beings (fairies, in short) drawn from British and Celtic folklore, who have migrated to the New World but still maintain Old World attitudes and rituals. Eddi McCandry, a young musician, is selected by the Seelie Court to be their mortal representative at the upcoming battles in the parklands of Minneapolis, allowing the combats to be fatal to the otherwise immortal Fae. Not given a choice, Eddi is less than pleased and tries to regain some measure of control over her life and the lives of those (fairy and human) who depend on her, including her minder, The Phouka (‘pooka’ to those who remember the Jimmy Stewart film Harvey). With a band of mixed human and fae members, she orchestrates the rescue of a kidnapped Seelie noble (and kick-ass lead guitar player) and engineers a final confrontation with the Big Bad, the Queen of Air and Darkness.
Do You Believe in Magic?
Bull’s novel, published in 1987, is one that helped launch the sub-genre known as “urban fantasy”, fantasy stories using traditional mythic figures but put entirely in modern settings and trappings. Along with Anne Rice’s vampire novels and the fantasy novels of Charles de Lint, The War for the Oaks brought a contemporary (“urban”) sensibility to the more conventional figures and features of folklore and legend.
Which success is not without its price, as Kevin noted that, while the book holds up very well, not being dated by style or narrative choices (use of a phone booth in one scene being the only obvious exception that I caught), it was a bit too familiar for him, after 30 years of reading books with a similar approach of putting classic myths in modern dress. Still, the mixture of realism and fantasy is done well and in a manner that preserves much of the drama of both.
Party Like It’s 1987
We Beamers found ourselves caring for the characters, both human and not, and discovering how much even immortals can change while still maintaining something of the magic that first drew us into their tales. The Phouka himself was a favorite, with Kathy enjoying his formal, slightly archaic language, while Liz noted his clothing choices made him a stand-in for Prince, the rock star who was part of the Minneapolis scene at the time Bull was writing. And I did not mind adding a small bow toward the Queen, herself, for her sense of style and irony (such as appearing as Cruella de Ville to better match Eddi’s expectations of a fairytale villain). Nick, on the other hand, was grateful that the Celtic dialogue, like brownie Hairy Meg’s heavy burr, was kept to a necessary (if humorous) minimum.
I Wanna Be Your Dog
Beyond the color and flash, though, we did appreciate the book’s handling of its character relationships above its reliance on plot points, exciting and engrossing as melees and daring rescues can be. Eddi and the Phouka have a classic Hollywood “slap, slap, kiss” dynamic, starting off with Eddi being stalked and dragooned into the fae wars by the Phouka, whose role as bodyguard requires close proximity, furthering her anger. And the Phouka’s agenda for choosing Eddi to help upset the balance of power within the Seelie Court, closely held by the Sidhe, and earn some respect for the lesser fairies, at first adds to her ire. But, with time and exposure to the “little folk” like Hairy Meg, Eddi becomes as much their advocate as the Phouka, and the risks he takes for her (like anointing her eyes to let her see past fairy glamour) win her over.
But not all the Beamers. Alan questioned the Phouka’s maneuvering, not seeing how it would produce any real redistribution of power. Kevin thought that the switch from jailer to lover was also too abrupt, effectively presenting the reader with two different characters who go by the title (name?) Phouka. Kathy argued back that the change was done very gradually and naturally and thus convincingly. I thought I could spot the transition point, during the Phouka’s confession of his plan and Eddi’s subsequent decision not to toss him out (which surprises him, too).
Take the ‘L’ Out of “Lover”, It’s Over
One dynamic that did provoke us a bit was Eddi’s short affair with Willy Silver, the Sidhe noble who joins her band and makes a play for her heart. Being Fae, he uses his inborn ability with glamour while on a date with Eddi, feeding her fancy with illusion, to her outrage when she discovers his manipulation of her feelings. Donna found it analogous to using a “date rape” drug, though Nick thought it was no more dubious than merely primping and preening for a new girlfriend.
Most Beamers, after some debate about what happened and how it affected Eddi, sided with Donna, finding Eddi’s situation and her rejection of Willy to be perfectly understandable. And the rest of the book bears her out. The Faerie were given euphemistic names like “Happy” for a reason, as they were not to be taken lightly nor treated without great caution. Kevin noted that the difference between the two Courts was less “friendly versus unfriendly” than “benign versus malign”. Bull’s screenplay (selections of which appear in later editions) use the terms “Summer” and “Winter” courts, and while summer is a more attractive season, it has its dangers as much as winter has its icy beauties.
Alan liked the book for having a strong female protagonist and allowing her to find reasons other than romance as her primary motivation. In his view, it also passes the Bechdel Test (a litmus test for gender bias proposed by cartoonist Alison Bechdel, which looks to see if a work of fiction contains two women having a conversation that does not involve a male subject).
There’s Gonna Be a Showdown
Perhaps our biggest dispute came over the handling of the climax, the musical throw-down between Eddi and her band (the Fae) and the Queen of Air and Darkness. In a book ladened with musical references and names and lyrics, the ending tied together both strands of Eddi’s life to resolve her dilemma over being the key to end an endless war and start a new life. But, while serving the purpose, the climax seemed rushed to several of us.
Donna found herself re-reading it, trying to track just how and why Eddi wins. I agreed, finding that there was too much “telling” and not enough “showing”, which is made more apparent when the book climax is compared to the screenplay version. Peter, in his e-mail, wanted to see more of a confrontation, perhaps with a rival Unseelie band led by Eddi’s ex, Stuart. Kathy, though, fought for leaving it as is, with just enough details to allow the reader to project what comes next and not be left hanging. In fairness, the very final line of the book, post-climax, does answer the Eddi-Phouka question quite neatly. If only the fight with the Queen were so succinctly handled.
The Song Remains the Same
One other advantage to the screenplay we granted was the ability to have a soundtrack. Nick counted out over 30 music references and was hoping to make a playlist for us, something that several of us would have liked a lot. Given the longevity of rock music and its stars, many of the references were recognizable, but some of the bands (those who were Minneapolis locals who were friends and acquaintances of Bull) were strange to us, and we would have been glad to hear some of their songs. Maybe next time, Nick?
At the climax of our meeting, we voted high marks to The War for the Oaks, missing oaks or no, with nothing lower than a ‘7’ being proposed. The cover blurb on the current edition reads “Emma Bull is really good – Neil Gaiman“, and based on our judgement, she not only gets a Gaiman nod, she gets Gaiman numbers, the highest honor that the Beamers bestow. Brava!