I first read Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks in 2001, and I really liked it at the time, perhaps because this novel was my first experience of urban fantasy and it seemed terribly original, fresh and new (as it probably was when it was first published in 1987.) The intervening dozen years, and many other excellent “urban fantasy” novels I’ve read in the interim haven’t been so kind to my first impressions of War for the Oaks, however; on this re-read I noticed not only that the cultural references were weirdly dated, and that the question of why, exactly, only Celtic mythological figures were present in modern-day Minneapolis was never addressed at all (where were the native American gods/spirits/myths whose names were evoked all over the place names mentioned in the novel?) but also that the characterization was incredibly thin. There was precisely one character whom I found interesting (and who was never explored) and even the phouka, whom I’d enjoyed the first time around, was a fairly standard romance novel character except for occasionally turning into a dog. Also, I don’t think Emma Bull did herself any favors with the overly-detailed descriptions of the frankly goofy-looking clothing everyone was wearing and of the music that Eddi and her band played (I think the only writer I’ve ever read who managed to make the process of composition interesting in and of itself was Thomas Mann!).
I still give this novel some kudos for introducing the idea of urban fantasy (and for introducing me to the genre!) but I’d have to say that if someone wanted to read a far more thoughtful look at what might happen when the gods of the Old Worlds came to the new, I’d recommend Neil Gaiman’s American Gods. And the next time I want to read a novel about the intersection of mythology and music, I’ll go back to the perennially fascinating Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones.