Publishing cycles are strange things. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy burbled merrily along as a cult favorite for years, gradually picked up steam, and eventually became an unprecedented publishing phenomenon, and — as writers and publishers alike realized there was more money to be raked from the Tolkien-reading hordes — the template for a new sub-genre (“heroic fantasy,” a.k.a. “high fantasy”).
Many specific attributes of Tolkien’s fiction, like a vaguely feudal/English pastoral culture and the presence of multiple humanoid races, dominated the new sub-genre. The homogeneity may have been helped by the introduction of Dungeons & Dragons, which codified a unified fantasy backdrop setting, including elements explicitly drawn from Tolkien and other fantasists (and which ultimately inspired books of its own).
At some point, genre writers, who I have to presume, were frustrated by heroic fantasy’s increasing adherence to convention (and arguably, therefore, reduced creativity) started writing fiction which melded otherwordly entities with contemporary urban settings. In particular, Emma Bull was one of several writers involved in the “Borderlands” project, a “shared universe” setting which yielded several novels and loosely-linked anthologies. (Once the novelty wore off, I thought the “rock’n’roll elf” sub-sub-genre itself started to get stale.)
I missed Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks when it was first published in 1987. It’s not a “Borderlands” novel — no rock’n’roll elves here, just rock’n’roll faeries — but it has a similar flavor. It’s set in Minneapolis, and the affection for the city which pervades this novel is one of its best qualities. Bull’s depiction of walking down Hennepin Avenue to the First Avenue night club reminded me vividly of my own trips to the old 9:30 Club in DC; I thought throughout that Bull applied her strongest prose to the least fantasy-oriented scenes.
War for the Oaks has some of the rough edges I expect in a first novel (and a few “now, why didn’t the bad guys see that coming?” moments), but I liked it overall, and thought it was better written than many fantasies. In the introduction Bull points out that her actual (and substantial) experience as a professional musician post-dates War for the Oaks, but nonetheless it’s a much less ridiculous depiction of the local band scene than most (even if the band’s cover tune choices are painfully dated). In fact, the scenes focusing on band dynamics reminded me more than a bit of Pagan Kennedy’s The Exes.
What strikes me as funny about reading this novel in 2007, though, is that it also fits into a much more current publishing cycle. I presume the “supernatural romance” sub-genre owes its popularity mostly to the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV series and Laurel Hamilton’s “Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter” novels. Unlike Buffy, Blake, and their many followers, War for the Oaks doesn’t feature vampires or a protagonist who’s in an action-oriented line of work (private investigator/vigilante/cop, etc.), but it does feature lovingly detailed descriptions of character wardrobes and (hu)man(oid)-candy, and it includes some racy bits. The book was reprinted in 2001 , with the supernatural romance publishing upswing well underway, and I’m (pleasantly) surprised that Tor didn’t package this book to cash in on the trend.
Needs More Demons? Nope.