27 September, 2022

LitStack Recs: Passage to Ararat & War for the Oaks

War for the Oaks, by Emma Bull

I would recommend Emma Bull’s novel War for the Oaks even if it wasn’t set in my home town of Minneapolis. Honest, I would.

It’s a fun, sometimes suspenseful, sometimes silly, often fanciful and fun fantasy story about a young musician who gets caught up in the world of the fey – magical creatures – who cross over into our reality. But it isn’t just another “girl amongst the fairies” tale. Unlike most “right place at the wrong time” or “she was so beautiful that the Faerie Prince could not help but fall in love with her” scenarios that are the heart of most of these tales (if there even is rationale given at all) the reasons for the interactions between the mundane world and the supernatural in War for the Oaks actually make sense. There are reasons – practical ones, fantastical ones, tactical ones, even romantic ones. And perhaps the best reason of all is the acknowledgement that we hold within ourselves (some perhaps more than others, but still) a modicum of magic that plays out, especially when we lose ourselves in those things we love.

Eddi McCandry is a guitar player and singer in her boyfriend’s mediocre band. The night that she decides to ditch him and his band to head out on her own, she finds herself herded (yes, herded) into the presence of two very strange individuals:  a glaistig, or water spirit, and a phouka – a dark man who can shapeshift into the form of a black dog – who are creatures of the Seelie Court, the fey who are light and beautiful. They have come to recruit her to join their impending war with the dark Unseelie Court, for according to ancient laws, the presence of a mortal is needed in order for either side be victorious:  “Eddi McCandry, the Seelie Court goes to war, and needs the presence of mortal blood to bring death to its enemies.”

Well, this sounds rather unbelievable to Eddi, downright crazy, ridiculous. She’s a hip, modern, independent woman. Why should she care about some faerie war, whether it goes on and on for time immemorial, or if one side or the other wins?

Actually, turns out there’s a pretty darned good reason for he to get involved. If the Unseelie are victorious (for they, too, will have their own mortal), they will bring decay and rot and darkness to her world – and Eddi loves her world. Grudgingly, she agrees to help the Seelie  – and almost immediately, her life takes a dangerous, and a remarkable, turn.

As the story progresses, we learn that Eddi is not just a random participant, and it is this growing awareness (both on her part and on ours) that elevates War for the Oaks above many modern fantasies. To top it off, the characters are well defined and fetching, the action moves crisply without sacrificing purchase in those characters, and there is plenty of the fantastical that stretches the imagination but doesn’t break it. This novel truly is a fun, entertaining read. Oh, and there are some whopping huge magical battles, to boot.

And did I mention – it takes place in Minneapolis! It really, truly captures the feel and spirit of Minneapolis in the late ’80s, a time of vibrancy that I personally experienced, and can vouch to the truth of it. (One of my friends says that Minneapolis is actually a character in the story, and I think that’s a good assessment.) I know, that’s not a selling point for most of you, but it speaks to the credibility of the story, where someone who claims the landscape knows the veracity of her use of it. It truly was a joy to read – and I think you’ll agree with me. Even if you’re not from Minneapolis.

Highly, highly recommended.

—Sharon Browning