One of the hardest things to do when reviewing a book is to read other reviews. I typically don’t because it can be intimidating or distracting. However, I was curious to know what others had thought of this series of books and interestingly more has been written about Sarah’s Earthen Witch Novels series than most books I have read. The sheer passion and length of the reviews as well as the quality and insightfulness point to something we should appreciate about this genre of fiction, much like fan-fiction it produces an incredibly loyal response from its readers.
I confess to not knowing what ‘urban fiction’ was, though I had heard of paranormal fiction of course, and romantic witch/vampire fiction and many of my favorite children’s books featured witches. Sometimes a genre is so misleading; it can dumb-down the value and importance of work or limit the potential readership. In the past, I would have passed by urban fiction or paranormal fiction as limiting genres, and that would have been my loss. Fortunately owing to the TV show True Blood I was somewhat familiar with romantic vampire fiction and had read all of Charlaine Harris Southern Vampire Mystery Series as well as her Midnight Texas series. She is known to write mostly in the Southern Gothic genre not unlike Anne Rice.
Prior to that, I had read some similar genres, though not too many, as they were not my favorite genre and tended to stick together indistinguishably. Among them, I had obviously read Anne Rice’s vampire series, been hooked on Poppy Z. Brite’s fantastic mostly stand-alone books set in New Orleans and hadn’t thought much of the much-hyped Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series but I wasn’t familiar with how many books in these genres existed, let alone that many were written by females. It is worth noting a comparison to other women is more accurate than comparing with male writers, not because women cannot be compared with men, but the very flavor and nuance of writing is so radically different that it’s necessary sometimes to compare like with like.
Initially, it seemed I couldn’t review Sarah’s book because I wasn’t well versed in the subject matter, but that’s the great thing about someone who actually can write, they ensure any reader can access their work without needing to be immersed in the entire lore of the subject. This is true with Just Breathe, and unlike the very overwhelming genre-laden books of contemporaries like Sherrilyn Kenyon and Laurell K. Hamilton, both of whom I had read but not completed their series, I felt Just Breathe didn’t force the reader to pay homage to the subject and could have been any genre, in that the quality of the writing and the character development is what you remember in a good book far more than whether it has witches and vampires or not.
Perhaps it’s snobby to say this, but I have found some books that pay too much homage to their genre become nothing more than the genre. They cannot stand up by themselves, the quality of the writing and the plot development suffers because of the attention given to the subject and the fantasy part of the novel. Whilst it’s necessary to pay due heed to subject-matter, it should not dominate the quality of writing and character development, and I compare this to movies that focus too heavily on special effects without a sound plot and solid memorable characters. Bottom line, if you don’t care about the characters, it doesn’t matter how much you like the world you won’t want to keep reading.
Sarah accomplishes this initial goal almost presciently, and even if I did not know how much she lives to write, I could tell this by the sheer weight she gives her words and the attention to detail and harmony her writing conveys. Furthermore, I read somewhere that Sarah sees her writing poetry as a moment, whereas her writing fiction as a lifetime, and when I read this, it made total sense to me because I’ve read Sarah’s poetry for years and it is a moment, a strong powerful smack in the gut moment, but definitely a moment, whereas when I read her fiction, I can see the entire universe is being considered and she is methodical, paced and thorough in her plotting and building of characters.
I say all of this prior to actually giving my impression of the book Just Breathe, because I’m aware this is not a stand-alone but part of a series and a world that Sarah Doughty has created. Many times reading authors I find myself trying hard to find positive things to say about their work because I am a little impatient with fiction and I have high expectations and demand a lot of the author. I can say without hesitation that Just Breathe delivered for me. I was surprised. When I found out the genre my heart sank and I worried that I wouldn’t find enough to say about the book that was positive (and contrary to popular practice, I’m not interested in tearing a book to shreds, I don’t think it helps the authors grow!).
I was wrong, Sarah knows her art, and she drew me into her world almost immediately. I hate reading online and had the book been shorter I would have printed it out but it did not bother me at all to read it on my computer (although for future reference, I’m always going to be a paper fan, that’s the luddite in me). That alone says a lot, because if you’re not comfortable with the medium your attention can wander and it takes a very captivating story to prevent that. I read the book in 2 days, which is slightly faster than my average, and again, indicates that the author knows how to keep a reader spellbound to her creation.
As I said before, I’m very familiar with Sarah’s poetry and have always appreciated her blunt and honest way of telling it like it is, that’s why it was a surprise to find out she is equally conversant and gifted with longer art forms, and has the alacrity of writing where she can describe in great detail, an entire scene such as her many battle scenes and intimacy scenes, and really conjure for the reader, the very substance of that moment, over many pages. I believe another reviewer commented on how one of her lovemaking scenes went over many pages, in another author this may have come across as pornographic, or over-kill, which again points to Sarah’s honed art as a writer, knowing what is enough and how to control the ebb and flow of her writing exactly.
It goes without saying if I appreciated this book it was in large part due to my liking the main character of Aisling, who whether she has autobiographic features of Sarah or not, is in her own right, a really well fleshed out character. Personally, I appreciate female authors who are unafraid to take their work further and have a political perspective and awareness to the role of women in any universe, including the fantasy ones. Too often male authors resort to dated and two-dimensional female characters, hence why female authors in the fantasy genre as a whole (once, almost entirely dominated by male authors) have shifted this balance and consequently, more women read the genre.
Sarah accomplishes this in Aisling and also her handling of Connor and the other characters. Aisling having been abused at the hands of her stepfather has the scars and trauma that accompany such an experience but in her own right, she possesses the enduring strength one requires to really cherish a heroine.
I don’t need my heroines to be squeaky clean and perfect, that’s too often the case and it really smacks of insincerity and hollow characterization. Humans are imperfect, it’s often that we love most about a person, not how accomplished they are. Too often the characters are expected to be indomitable and unrealistically untouched by trauma, and I don’t think when they’re that far removed you can really bond with them. I was able to relate to Aisling despite the supernatural element that can sometimes allow a reader to enter the fantasy but not relate directly to it. Through her suffering and her survival, I found a woman I wanted to succeed and it involves you at a deeper level than many fantasy novels that are preoccupied by the lore and fantastical part, in the end you need to care about the people in the story as much as the story itself.
Not too long ago I read a forgettable novel on a plane that was written by a woman and featured witches, warlocks, vampires and other supernatural folk. Sadly I couldn’t tell you today the authors name or the title. This is commonplace when a genre is saturated by very similar authors and characters; they merge together and rarely stand out. What I can appreciate in Sarah’s writing is that the quality of her writing stands out irrespective of how many other women may be writing on some of these themes. You aren’t going to forget who she is any more than some of the more recognizable and acclaimed authors who have broken through the morass and made themselves known.
That takes a higher standard of writing than is often found in fantasy genres. Those who do elevate the form are the ones whose names we recall. Personally, I always admired that ability even more so than originality, because many times we strive to be original but it is not enough to be original, we must be likable. Sometimes familiarity can be more likable than something we’ve never read before. In the fantasy genre, I’d take something well written and perceptive over something never heard of before. It can be tempting to keep creating out of the box to be the ‘first’ but you have to combine this with solid memorable writing skills. Without that, you’re just a good idea without legs.
Sarah has that strength in her writing, this isn’t just a hobby for her, you can tell she takes her writing very seriously and spends a lot of time ensuring she gets it right. The continuum of the storyline as well as the developing arc of the characters is a necessary component of any series, as all of us can attest when we have watched TV shows whose characters become more contradictory and confused as the season progresses. To achieve this you need usually to create your world and the people in it and omnipotently draw the trajectory of their lives before committing words to paper. Too often with fantasy authors, the temptation is to ‘write!’ and then go back and ensure it makes sense, but oftentimes you can tell when this is the way an author has chosen to construct their work and it ends up full of implausibility or holes that are too apparent to the reader.
The other reviews of Just Breathe and the Earthen Witch Novels have looked in detail at Aisling and her world, and used many quotes to convey to the reader reasons they may like to read this series. As that has been done, I have chosen to look at the genre and try to give you an idea of where Sarah Doughty’s work lies in that genre, and why her work is worth taking a serious look at. If you were say, to be confronted with all the novels with similar lore, you’d have a lot and how would you know which to choose? A blurb isn’t always enough, and short of a famed review or TV serialization, you may miss some of the best novelists out there. It is up to reviewer to explain why you should read this book more than what the book is about, that often spoils the purpose. I can tell you that aside the reasons given above, if you are a fan of realistic fantasy and by that I don’t mean the obvious oxymoron that implies, but an idea of making fantasy writing as believable as possible within that fantasy, then you will really appreciate Sarah’s novels.
Too many times I have not been able to convince myself enough to believe in the world created by fantasy writers, and whilst the very idea of creating a fantasy, means you should not require realism, it is our nature to need to believe in any creation, however fantastical and that can only be achieved by an adequate attention to making those characters realistic to us. It doesn’t matter if a character is a witch or a vampire and whether those things exist in our world or do not, it matters that we believe as we read that they are real. That way we become invested in them.
Another reviewer of Sarah’s work did a spectacular job of contrasting and comparing her writing and work to a feminist theme and theory. I appreciated this very much and her points were well taken, because oftentimes women as much as men, create female characters that are subjugate to men, sexually or morally or emotionally as well as physically. It must be tempting for some authors to believe in our inaccurate social stereotypes of what a woman is, than really question what she is capable of. Sarah doesn’t make this mistake. Her female characters are not unrealistically tough at all, but they are not pushovers, they survive, they grow, they deepen. And she doesn’t shy away from describing brutality and inequality and unfairness nor does she justify it in the name of action and excitement.
As a woman I respect that because fantasy writing was historically guilty of some really bad stereotypes and likewise with the sex scenes, the inequality of the genders was often apparent, and it took a really strong writer to break out of those stereotypes. I did not get a sense of any such stereotyping in Just Breathe but rather, the fresh air of an unbiased mind. In that, I compare Sarah’s work to one of my favorite authors, Poppy Z. Brite who was long hailed as an uncompromising author unafraid of touching on difficult subjects or unconventional characters. This is another reason you are unlikely to forget Sarah’s work or jumble it in with all the other fantasy writers out there, she takes good care to be memorable in her careful attention to detail and her unwillingness to follow pastiche and typical character arcs.
This is one reason I never appreciated Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, whilst on the surface, the female characters had spunk, they were ultimately so wrapped up in their man that they gave some of their power away. I am not decrying love, but it needs to be balanced against a woman’s need to stand on her own and not compromise her core. I was happy that Sarah’s book didn’t let me down and was equally able to convey love and attachment without it becoming a dominating theme that ruined the potential of the female lead. In other words, romantic fiction of any ilk does not have to rely as heavily on old-hat notions of male-female and the female does not always have to be the one who throws the baby out with the bathwater. This is especially true here, where the lead female character has an abuse history, it is necessary for her to resolve this without relying solely upon another man to achieve this resolution, otherwise she’s just swapping abuse for safety without really growing in her own right. Fortunately, Aisling is the kind of woman that women can relate to and she isn’t afraid to stand up for what she feels is right, even as she was one so subjugate and becomes horrified to find out the legacy of abuse within her own family circle. For this reason, Just Breathe is a deeply redemptive book and that alone makes it worthy of reading.
On a metaphorical level, one can compare Sarah Doughty’s writing and thoughts to another beloved female author, Angela Carter. Carter enthralled me when I first read her in my late teens, she has the feminist backbone and the fantastical mind of a true artist and her work transports you to amazing feats of imagination as well as harking back to our race memories of fear and darkness. The childhood nightmare of the evil step-father is often sadly, a reality, the unspoken trail of abuse, cutting through generations, again, really happens. And where once we wove these realities into fantasy to hide the truth of them, now we can create say, a witch-hunter and a murderer both, and also see the real-life equivalent t in that treatment of Aisling’s step-father.
I liken Sarah’s work to Carter’s in that juxtaposition of what scares us and what empowers us. She is both able to shock us and make us tremble as she is to suggest ideas of strength and conquering those fears. In that she takes the metaphorical road that is the very essence of fantasy and perhaps why so many of us are drawn to it and weaves a story of fantastical proportions that we also can find ourselves in. Ultimately what I love about fantasy is we can go one step further in fantasy than we can in real life. And without giving away the storyline, I can say, the awfulness of the real world is held to account in the fantasy. And with this I leave you with one recommendation, pick Sarah Doughty’s work out of the genre and let it Just Breathe.
Daquin’s own life, traveling from her native France, via England, Canada and finally the US, has brought a myriad of experiences that others have often been able to tap into via her writing. A collection of lives really, and with this, she tries to weave greater meaning through poetry and touch those who experience similar questions, doubts, and hopes. Surely this is what writing attempts in its very human form?
Daquin’s themes include feminism in its complex, everyday form, and the experience of being a woman, a gay woman, a bi-racial woman, a bi-cultural woman and finally, a Jewish woman of Egyptian extraction (Mizrahi) and how this sits with the world’s current revolt between the dominant faiths.
You can read more of her writing at The Feathered Sleep.