War for the Oaks
Author: Emma Bull
Publisher: Tor Teen, 2004
First Published: 1987
Genre: Urban Fantasy
A Recipe for Swoon-Worthy Leads
War for the Oaks is filled with rich and magical characters, but none as fantastic or brilliant as the Phouka. Keeping in mind this is the first ever-recognized Urban Fantasy novel, I was surprised at the strong romantic interest role the phouka plays. The Phouka’s smug, over-the-top, eloquent voice endears him to us from the very beginning even when Eddi (the heroine) still sees him as a threat. He’s very charming when he wants to be with a peculiar and flamboyant sense of fashion that only adds to his charisma. He’s fun, sexy, quite wicked, and has a full repertoire of endearments—my flowerlet, my sweet, my primrose, my little snowdrop, my heart, my inquisitive flower, my seminocturnal flower, my iris, my obstreperous primrose, my beloved. He says, “I am phouka, my sweet, and by nature a tricksy wight” (39). And let’s not forget his modesty—“No one,” he said, glowering at her, “is perfect.” He pressed his lips together for an instant, then grinned. “Except, of course, myself” (130).
All of this makes him a great character, but what makes him a great romantic interest? To better answer this—and have fun—I’ve treated this discussion as a recipe and divided it into four steps, showing you the ingredients, the procedure and the final product of the phouka’s transformation in the eyes of the heroine. Let’s begin!
Step One: The Mystery Man
Ingredients: a teaspoon of mystery, a glimpse of sexiness, a cup of danger
Procedure: Mix quickly and knock the heroine out. She won’t know what hit her.
Not all romantic interests start off as prince charming; in fact, many of them begin as a threat or opposition to the heroine. This is the case with phouka. Eddi’s first glimpse of him leaves her feeling both confused and a little creeped out.
Then she saw the man standing at the edge of the dance floor. His walnut-stain skin seemed too dark for his features. He wore his hair smoothed back, except for a couple of escaped curls on his forehead. His eyes were large and slanted upward under thick arched brows; his nose was narrow and slightly aquiline. He wore a long dark coat with the collar up, and a gleaming white scarf that reflected the stage lights into his face. When she looked at him, he met her eyes boldly and grinned. (19)
He is a mysterious figure, but he’s also alluring in a dark and dangerous way. Eddi is both scared and intrigued. Their second encounter adds danger to the mix, because the phouka follows Eddi home. He basically stalks her turning from man to dog and back again until he has her cornered. Eddi is now one hundred percent sure the phouka is a threat.
Step Two: The Unwanted Guardian
Ingredients: half a cup of danger, a handful of bravery, five cups of hilarious banter
Procedure: Add in and knead slowly letting the heroine accustom herself to her new companion.
After the horrible first impression, Eddi doesn’t trust the phouka. But he’s a good guy, so it’s time to win her back. How? Well, witty banter goes a long way to soften a girl. This is the phouka’s ultimate weapon; he can be funny at any given time. For example, as Eddi’s newly assigned guardian, he takes his job very seriously.
“I’m to be your bodyguard, am I not? Many’s the mortal in this city who’d envy you your fine big guard dog, poppet. See?” And he leaped between her and some imaginary assailant, his head lowered and hackles bristling, stiff-legged, a rumble in his throat that seemed to shake the pavement. “Oh, what a terror I am! But puppy-gentle with my mistress.” He bounded back to her, tail wagging, and licked her hand. (35)
Another tactic he uses to soften Eddi is by having breakfast ready for her in the morning as a sort of apology. But this backfires. Eddi is more than shocked at his behavior and her distrust raises its ugly head again. This is where the phouka has to prove himself, and the chance comes soon enough when the Eddi’s boyfriend comes by in a jealous rampage and hits her.
As she fell, she saw the phouka move from his chair to Stuart. Then Stuart was face down on the floor, one arm pinned behind him and the phouka’s knee in his back. Stuart’s face was white and pinched with pain.
“Don’t. Do that. Again.” The phouka’s voice was soft, but with each word he tugged gently on Stuart’s pinned arm. (47)
The phouka shows to be more than angry at the attack, and he apologizes to the Eddi for not having anticipated it. He also has just protected her from a non-fairy attack, something that’s not in his job description as guardian. Sadly, even after the phouka defends her, Eddi still feels the need to get away from him. It’s not until she runs away and stumbles across an Unseelie fairy and is (yet again) rescued by the phouka that Eddi realizes he is the only one who’s always there for her.
Step Three: The Wanted Companion
Ingredients: a drop of vulnerability, two teaspoons of deep emotion, a cup of thoughtfulness
Procedure: Pour and stir in careful strokes, let the aroma envelop the heroine until her heart begins to beat faster.
Eddi’s feeling towards the phouka change. She no longer sees him as an unwanted person intruding in her life, but as someone she can count on. The phouka has saved her life! Eddi trusts him with her life. But the phouka is no longer sure about his role and starts regretting his decision of involving Eddi in the fairy war. Eddi starts asking more questions about fairy and he’s reluctant to answer.
He looked up at her through his lashes. Ridiculously long and thick, they rimmed his large almond eyes like eyeliner. “Don’t ask me, please,” he said, barely loud enough for her to hear over the stereo. “If you ask me again, I shall tell you, and that would be the wrong thing to do.
Eddi heard the appeal in his voice and shrugged angrily. (69)
It seems the phouka is keeping some secrets in the hopes of avoiding Eddi some pain. We see him vulnerable here, begging her not to ask anymore. He cares about her and suddenly his role becomes a heavy weight. Eddi notices his change in attitude while admiring him standing near the window, where he keeps vigil every night.
His forehead, under the thick spill of curls, was high and straight, his nose unexpectedly long and aquiline. His lips were full, his chin jutted decidedly, and when he turned his head a little those ridiculous eyelashes made a sharp punctuation to the vertical lines of his face. He seemed at once real and unreal, as out of place as a celebrity seen in person. She frowned and thought again longingly of sleep.
Then he raised one slender hand and rubbed his eyes. It was an ordinary gesture. But it was eloquent of weariness and sorrow in a way Eddi had never seen, and she was filled with the shapeless melancholy that music sometimes evoked in her. (74-75)
He’s a magical creature, yet so human some ways. Eddi recognizes the phouka is not just her protector anymore, but her companion, another friend, someone she cares about. And he certainly cares about her. We see it a couple of times, but I think the biggest tell that he’s fallen completely for her is when he confesses to having ‘fixed’ his trick with the fake money. It’s in his nature to do tricks, but he listened to Eddi and cared enough that she was upset to go back and fix it. Eddi is touched by his thoughtfulness and thanks him.
“Oh!” Eddi leaned forward eagerly. “You mean it won’t change back? It’ll stay money? Oh, thank you!”
He sank his face into his hand. “I believe I warned you about saying that.”
“Shit. I’m sorry. But I…that makes me very happy.”
He looked up at her, and smiled slowly. “Now that I can listen to with no discomfort at all.” (128)
Step Four: The Romantic Interest
Ingredients: two cups of romance, a heartfull of love, a drop of mixed emotions, sexiness sprinkles
Procedure: Pour slowly and mix everything until you sweep the heroine off her feet.
Now that they’re both care for each other, it’s time to up the ante. How to do this? Throw in a hot second romantic interest by the name of Willi Silver. Eddi is super interested in the guitarist and we see the phouka react weirdly, almost jealously. Eddi isn’t that heartless though. She notices and goes looking for the phouka after he disappears from the band practice.
She licked her lips. “Are you okay?”
“Always, my primrose. What, have you decided that I’m in need of protecting, too?”
“No, I just…wondered where you’d gone, was all.”
He stepped forward and took both her hands. “You missed me,” he said. “Admit it. Tell me you cannot live without me.” His lips were twitching.
“You’re a jerk.”
“And you love it.” (87-88)
Since the phouka doesn’t say anything, Eddi ends up hooking up with the guitarist. However, no matter how jealous he might be, the phouka continues being her guardian and caring for her. His feelings for her change his mind and he’s not going to force to participate in the war. He gives her the option to leave, but then begs her not to—“I haven’t much taste for begging, and less skill. But I will happily beg you for this, with all the meager talent at my command. I would even bribe you, had I anything to offer. Will you please, please, go through with the business tonight?” (133). The phouka is conflicted between wanting to be with her and letting her go.
When he gives her the option, Eddi is once again shocked. She knows he could be in serious trouble if he lets her leave, so she decides to stay. It the first step, her doing something for him. Furthermore, the phouka also risks his life in giving her the true sight so that she won’t be deceived during the pre-war ceremony. By now, both Eddi and the phouka know there are feelings coursing between them. It says, “Eddi had the odd notion that they were two complementary forms in space, like the halves of the ying-yang symbol, like the light and dark faces of the moon” (255). It only takes a night of revelry and music for them to open up to each other.
The key to a great romantic lead is all in the steps. In this case, from mystery man whom the heroine loathed and wanted nothing to do with him, to unwanted guardian whom she barely tolerated only for her safety, to wanted companion whom she worried and cared about, and finally to romantic interest whom she couldn’t let go a second more without kissing.