Literary Affairs

Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks

As you may know, Emma Bull is one of the writers who garners much approval here, as she’s a great writer, a talented musician, and a really nice person. So it’s not ‘tall surprising to me that one of her novels is on many of the lists of best novels that our staffers suggested for your reading pleasure.

Some twenty-seven years ago, one of the best urban fantasies ever written was published by Ace Books in an unassuming mass market paperback format — that work was her War for the Oaks. Just how good it is was noted in our in-depth review which you can read here.

For more on Emma as a writer, read our very detailed interview with her from 2001 here.

Emma, who was once our Summer Queen revolutionized the way we look at the world around us with her debut novel, War for the Oaks , a no-holds-barred, fast-paced, magically written rock-and-roll fable about Eddi McCandry, a Minneapolis singer/musician who gets dragged into a supernatural war taking place out of mortal sight.

She was in two amazing bands after this novel was published, Cats Laughing and Flash Girls, both of which cover ‘Signal to Noise’ from this novel.

So why is this novel now featured in a post here? Simply put, it is a novel set at Summer Solstice and it should be read when summer is in full force which it is right now. Like Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series which is set in the winter season and reflects the bleakness of that season so terribly well, War for The Oaks perfectly captures the feel of the Seelie and Unseelie Courts in High Summer. After fourteen years out of print, Tor in 2001 released it in a nifty trade paper edition — well, it is possible that there was also a hard cover edition but neither apparently Tor nor SFBC officially released one even though the Estate library has copies of not one but two different hard cover editions including one very obviously done for inclusion in lending libraries with its cool embossed cover! Why Tor never released a hard cover edition is a mystery still begging an answer!

(Emma noted over pints in the Pub that this novel has an interesting history — ‘It was the first book of the Ace Fantasy Specials, which Terri [Windling] agitated for in light of Terry Carr’s successful line of Ace Science Fiction Specials, which were created to introduce new SF talent (Gibson, Sterling, Shiner, etc.). The Ace Fantasy Specials included War for the Oaks and Delia Sherman’s Through a Brazen Mirror, as well as work by other first-time novelists in fantasy.’)

One of our reviewers talks about the other aspect of the novel which should be stressed… ‘No review of War for the Oakswould be complete without a closer look at Emma’s other talent — writing beautiful lyrics,’ as any fan of the Flash Girls or Another Way to Travel knows. As one of our reviewers commented, ‘The Estate Library may be the only place where you can go to read William Shakespeare’s The Trapping of the Mouse or Edgar Allen Poe’s The Worm of Midnight while listening to the music of Gossamer Axe or Snori Snoriscousin and His Brass Idiots. The world of literature is a big, big place, and it’s an intrepid and meticulous soul who can keep track of the shifting tapestry that we call ‘reality’. There are books within books and bands you can only listen to in your imagination. So you’re to be forgiven if you’ve seen references to Cats Laughing in novels like Bone Dance or the Bordertown series and assumed that they were only another fictional group like Wild Hunt or Eldritch Steel. But if that was your assumption, it’s time you learned the truth — Cats Laughing were very real, and they were one hell of a band — and they live on in these CDs, and they’re still one hell of a band.’

So there you are — a novel and a soundtrack to that novel, both of which are highly entertaining. There’s even a bit of film for a War for the Oaks movie which never got made in full — the entire script is sort of reviewed here and I remembered a while back to ask Will Shetterly, her husband, about the music on the eleven minute video trailer made for a film that alas never happened

Oh, man. Let’s see. The two big songs at the beginning and end of the video are by Cats Laughing, but only ‘Here We Go Again’ is from the book; we just liked ‘Nottamun Town’, so we used it.

Can’t now remember who did the opening instrumental; I think it’s the Flash Girls. John Sjogren sings a piece of a trad tune to the sleeping Eddi, the name of which I really should remember, and which Emma would remember for me if she wasn’t in Minnesota. Marz & Menton are the duo in the party scene.

Emma obligingly added to his remembrance with this note: ‘Opening instrumental — ‘Morrison’s’ (trad, performed/warped by the Flash Girls) — Ballad sung by John Sjogren — I don’t have the video to hand, but I think it was ‘Tom O’ Bedlam.”

I envy those of you that are encountering these works for the first time, as you get to be impressed and surprised by just how great these works are. Hell, I think I’ll go read War for the Oaks once again. Catch me in the Green Man Pub after you’ve read it and I’ll buy you a pint of Mackeson Stout so we can toast Emma!

Cross-posted to Green Man Review.

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