Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Review: War for the Oaks

War for the Oaks
War for the Oaks by Emma Bull

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I loved Emma Bull's [b:Territory|70581|Territory|Emma Bull|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1316129552s/70581.jpg|68392], a weird-west version of the Shootout at the OK Corral that leaves Mike Resnik's [b:The Buntline Special|8253037|The Buntline Special (Weird West Tales, #1)|Mike Resnick|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1284431932s/8253037.jpg|13100750] gasping in its dust (sorry, Mike). And people kept telling me how good War for the Oaks was... but I was still amazed.

Published back in 1987, here is one of the founding books of urban fantasy. It's almost all here: the feisty contemporary woman, smart and independent, having to deal as best she can with the supernatural; a powerful sense of place (the Twin Cities, in this case) and time; the supernatural threat, of course, and saving the city, if not the world, therefrom; even the romance and the sex is here. With a shapeshifter, no less.

There are two differences between War for the Oaks and most urban fantasies being published today, though. One is that it's written in third-person limited rather than first person, which is a trivial stylistic difference when you do third-person limited as well as Bull does. And the other is that Bull can write really, really well.

I don't just mean that she's good at telling a story. Plenty of today's urban fantasists can do that. Bull's protagonist Eddi is a poet (though she denies it), and it's with the voice and eye of a poet, and the intonations and perfect word choice and beautiful phrasing of a poet, that War for the Oaks is told.

And yet it never, for me, crossed that line from "beautifully done" to "done in order to be beautiful". It's not self-indulgent or self-conscious or self-anything. It's such a pleasure to read a book written by someone whose vocabulary is not smaller than she thinks it is, who doesn't use a single incorrect homonym, and who chooses her words so well.

It's also a pleasure to read an urban fantasy in which we're not told, but are shown, that the protagonist is a strong, independent woman. Eddi protagonizes like crazy. She makes things happen with courage, determination and intelligence, and by cultivating alliances like a smart hero. She never once has to be rescued by a man from a boneheadedly stupid but plot-advancing decision, something that happens all too often in urban fantasy (possibly having come in via the "romance" part of paranormal romance). In fact, she rescues a man instead. We also see her romantic choices improving throughout the book, right from the first chapter, where she has decided to dump her decorative but otherwise useless boyfriend.

So much of urban fantasy seems like a poor echo of War for the Oaks now. I only wish Emma Bull had written more like this.

In fact, I wish anyone had.

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