Tuesday, November 29, 2005

King Rat and War for the Oaks

I finished King Rat by China Mieville yesterday. What I was expecting was China Mieville's typical fare, along the lines of Perdido Street Station, Iron Council or The Scar; a fantasy epic revolving around an urban setting (or the exodus/return to an urban setting) with a critical eye toward the social interaction of literally dozens of characters, races, half races and political views, all a little less exotic when viewed as modern social commentary. Instead what I got was the London yin to Emma Bull's Twin Cities-centered War for the Oaks yang. They're that close in subject matter.

On the one hand, the Mieville hand, we have Saul Garamond from London, son of the Rat King, a human like rat who is, nevertheless, fully rat, and who raped Saul's mother to foster a half breed that could withstand the flute of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. The Piper (Pete) is the target of King Rat and two other animal kings who have suffered at the Piper's hands. The Piper is also an evil, supernatural fellow who is exploring the ins and outs of 1990's Drum and Bass in an attempt to create flute music in layers so that he can affect multiple creatures at once, or half creatures that are otherwise immune to his tunes. He's also just a nasty fellow generally, controlling and murdering anyone who gets between him and his goal, which is to create a layered tune (Windy City) that can scour a city clean.

On the other hand, the Bull hand, we have Eddi McCandy from the Twin Cities, reveling in 1980's Prince-style music. She meets good fairies and bad fairies, both living in the cities and waging war. She falls in love with one fairy who turns out not to be such a good fairy after all, but falls in love with another and works with him to stop the evil fairies from leaving the Twin Cities a soulless place that eventually falls to ruin.

"King Rat" - dark. The hero transcends his humanity and becomes rat in many respects eating bad food, growing grimy and finding the underside of the big city that is its real essence. "War for the Oaks" - light. The hero transcends her humanity and creates music that even the fairies admire, and discovers that the city isn't just a grimy place, but full of magic and another world.

Both are obsessed with the musical genre of the era in which they're written. Both are obsessed with the city as locale. However, when all is said and done, "War for the Oaks" is a notch above "King Rat". Sure, I'm from the Twin Cities and so is Bull. And yes, I would never deny props to our native son and would likely get a headache from drum and bass. But cultural gap aside, "War for the Oaks" is simply a better novel. The writing is better, the sense of place is stronger, the personality of the main character is deeper and more empathetic, and the other characters are more than props. If you're picking just one, read "War for the Oaks". If you want a study in the same book written in two different cities, read both.

And now on to a bit of an extended addendum - a study of the use of place in Emma Bull's "War for the Oaks": Bull, Emma. War for the Oaks. Tom Doherty Associates Books: NY, NY. 2001 (1987). 332 pp.

She was aware, suddenly, of the reality of the buildings around her. This was the same Nicollet Mall that had been here yesterday. The difference, the unreality, must lie with her (p. 33).

Emma Bull’s 1987 novel War for the Oaks is an exceptional example of urban fantasy – a genre which has accumulated a wide following of writers in the last twenty years, including Steven Brust, Lois Bujold, Will Shetterly, Neil Gaiman and Charles deLint. Many of these authors are original members of what used to be known as the Minnesota Scribblies (founded at Concordia by Shetterly and Bull), or have since been inducted into that group's ranks (Gaiman, of comic book notoriety, has an assistant, The Fabulous Lorraine, who performs musically with Emma Bull), allowing them to form a community of writers who share technique writing about community, flavored with folktales and mythos moved into a modern, urban setting.

War for the Oaks is of particular interest among these authors' works because it is one of the earliest examples of the genre and because its action centers around Minneapolis and, peripherally, St. Paul. The use of a moderate-sized, Midwestern city, gives War for the Oaks a much different feeling than urban fantasy novels that use New York, London, or Paris as the primary locale – where we might believe it is plausible to find hidden communities and unknown bends in a city with ten million people and a hundred square miles above and below the sidewalk, it becomes a much more intimate affair in a city of only a few hundred thousand where one can walk from one end of downtown to the other in under an hour. To believe that there is a world beyond our own in Minneapolis, is not to believe that you have to crawl through a murky sewer or get lost in uncharted depths of the city, rather, it is to believe that there is a world beyond our own where ever you are at any particular time.

War for the Oaks is, in many respects, Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream moved to the locale of Minneapolis. Two rival fairy courts, the Seelie Court and the Unseelie Court vie for occupation of the Twin Cities. At stake is the vitality of the city. Should the Unseelie Court win, Minneapolis will become a run down city with no soul, full of shuffling residents and bleak towers. Should the Seelie Court win, the city will continue to thrive and prosper. Fairies, however, are immortal, and their warring generally results in brief skirmishes of no appreciable import – one character compares them to "football games". To give the war any lasting results requires a human presence to bring the taint of mortality to the field. This human must be someone who shares a bit of the magic of the fairy, generally a musician or an artist. The Seelie Court shanghais a local musician with visions of Prince-type fame, Eddi McCandry, to be a catalyst for mortality on the battlefield. War for the Oaks revolves from that point forward around Eddi’s evolving friendship with the Seelie Court, her relationships with its individual emissaries, her struggle to take her fate out of the Court's hands and put it in her own, and the growing involvement of everyone she loves – her band and her disgruntled ex-boyfriend – in the war for the oaks.

War for the Oaks constantly moves between locations familiar to residents of Minneapolis. The novel opens on the Nicollet Mall:

By day, the Nicollet Mall winds through Minneapolis like a paved canal. People flow between its banks, eddying at the doors of office towers and department stores. The big red-and-white city buses roar at every corner. On the many-globed lampposts, banners advertising a museum exhibit flap in the wind that the tallest buildings snatch out of the sky. The skyway system vaults the mall with its covered bridges of steel and glass, and they, too, are full of people, color, motion.

But late at night, there’s a change in the Nicollet Mall (p. 13).

That change is at the heart of all urban fantasies – it is not only the change from day to night, it is the change from the visible world of the bustling city, to a dark city of isolation, a city of tall, empty towers, unpeopled streets, and mysterious, shadowy corners; a city people have left behind for the night, as though only perhaps intending to return in the morning. Eddi McCandy is one of these “eddying” people – just trying to get through her life in Minneapolis, saddled with the many problems of her day-to-day existence, including a bad band and a worse boyfriend. Eddi is someone who assumes Minneapolis is empty at night, but who secretly wishes it was never empty, someone who hopes that in the various corners and the seemingly magical places of the day and the early evening, there are even more magical and more populated places of the night.

War for the Oaks uses two different styles to make the reader familiar with Eddi's urban environment. First is a straight repetition of location – a list of places that someone who is familiar with Minneapolis would know: Nicollet Mall, Loring Park, the IDS Tower, First Avenue, the junction of Washington and Hennepin, MCAD, Orchestra Hall, The City Pages (and, for those who remember it, The Reader), Oarfolk, The Ediner and Calhoun Square, the New Riverside CafĂ©, Knut Koupee’, Byerly’s, the Hyatt-Regency, the Church of Scientology, Skyway Theater, The Guthrie and the Walker Art Center and its Calder mobiles, the Institute of Art – the list goes on and on, keeping the reader firmly grounded in Minneapolis at all times. These discrete locations form a backdrop as the characters move from place to place, keeping the reader comfortable, at home with places that are, or should be, familiar, while at the same time introducing a fantasy world that lurks just beneath the surface.

Coupled with the repetition of location is a repetition of habit...an obvious habit to local residents. Sometimes the only motivation for moving between locations in Minneapolis is a cup of coffee. Indeed, unlike many books and movies with urban settings, the consumption of alcohol has virtually disappeared from the narrative, and instead takes on a Minnesota slant, becoming a quest for coffee. When a character wants to help another character or thank someone for saving their life, they make them coffee; when a terrifying battle is complete, there is coffee at the Ediner; when a set/concert is complete, there is coffee; after sex, coffee; and even one of Eddi’s songs is about the consumption of coffee and relationships. Familiar Minneapolis locations tied together with familiar Minneapolis habits – like taking a trip down a Mississippi filled with aromatic brown liquid.

While repetition of location and habit is one tool Emma Bull uses, a more interesting use of locale is her focus on discrete locations that she feels epitomize what is magical about Minneapolis. From the outset of War for the Oaks, we are presented with the dichotomy of a book about oaks that is not about a forest or a glade, but about a thriving city; the war takes place in the liminals of this city, in the isolated locales that can be found in all its corners and at its heart. Some of these locations take on a special significance because of their familiarity and their visibility to the residents of the city. Their importance to the city signifies their importance to the war between the courts.

Both Minnehaha Falls and Como Park function as battle sites. At first gloss, they are large grassy areas, reminding one of sites of historic, knightly battles. Yet they function on other levels, particularly when viewed in conjunction. Minnehaha Park, in Minneapolis, and Como Park, in St. Paul, tie the Twin Cities together in their similarities. Both parks are among the oldest in their respective cities. Both parks sit on a considerable source of water, sources of commerce, transportation and recreation. Both parks have historical locations within their boundaries. Both parks are wildernesses within the confines of the city: Minnehaha Falls a surprising jumble of rocky shorelines, and crashing waters, Como Park an unnatural preserve of wild animals and exotic, contained, forests. In both locations, nature comes into direct contact with the city, and the city has tried to tame nature by turning it into picnic fields, playgrounds and public displays - Minnehaha Creek tumbling all the way from Lake Minnetonka in the west through some of the most expensive property in Minneapolis, into the Mississippi River; Como Park presenting its cages and conservatory of animals and plants only a short walk away from the tattoo parlors of Arcade Street and the ice castles of Lake Phalen. Where nature meets the city, there is a battle for control and a desire to leave behind something tamed and safe where children can play - yet at the same time, there is a unspoken desire to leave behind a small pocket of the wilderness and danger that was originally there, a place where battles might rage and something terrifying might lurk around the corner.

Another central location is the witch's tower, readily recognizable to any Twin Cities resident as the old, black-capped tower on the hill on University Avenue where Minneapolis runs into St. Paul along one of its most traveled streets -- it is this street that ties downtown Minneapolis and its soaring, modern skyscrapers to downtown St. Paul and its historic buildings of granite. The witch's tower occupies a place that seems central to the whole Twin Cities. It stands on its hill looking westward over the University of Minnesota, sprawling along the lifeblood of the Mississippi, overlooking those who would become businessmen and scientists, and it looks eastward, toward the constantly shifting mass of humanity and spotted poverty that comprises Frogtown and Cathedral Hill. From the heights of the tower you can see the Mississippi and I-94; you can see two of the great rivers of transportation for the Twin Cities; you can see past and present. It is a place where aspects of the two cities merge along an asphalt river. Emma Bull makes it just such a place in War for the Oaks, a place where the Seelie and Unseelie courts can come together and drop their differences, where they can sing and dance and talk of truces and alternatives. And, unsurprisingly, it is the place where Eddi first feels accepted by the Seelie Court, stands up to the Queen of the Unseelie Court, and finds herself in love with the Phooka (a fairy). It is a place where all things come together.

Although War for the Oaks ignores the more traumatic aspects of the city such as poverty, racism, and addiction, in favor of an idealized form of gang warfare, it does not purport to be a book that fully describes the Twin Cities. Instead, it strives to be a book that imparts some of the magic Emma Bull feels exists in Minneapolis and St. Paul, and strives to be a source of comfort for those who feel alienated within the city. Urban fantasy addresses a need, namely, that if we are in a city and suddenly find ourselves alone amidst the towers and the offices and the tar, we can find comfort in the perception that we are not truly alone. Something is there. Even if that something is hidden from us in the Loring Park Fountain or in a deserted MTC bus stop, it exists. Life in the city is never just eddying around from building to building, toiling away at daily drudgery. Even if it seems that way, it is more magical, imbued with import as important things happen behind the scenes where our eyes cannot detect their presence. The life of the city is intimately tied up in things we cannot see and of which we are a reflection. At no point in War for the Oaks is anyone ever alone in Minneapolis or St. Paul. There is always a friend nearby, there is always an adventure around the corner, and there is always a song to be shared.

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