URBAN FANTASY’S BEST KEPT SECRET!
AN UNFORGETTABLE HEROINE MUST DISCOVER HERSELF IN ORDER TO CONQUER THE DEMONS OF HER PAST BEFORE IT DESTROYS HER
(Earthen Witch, Book 1)
Genre: Paranormal Romance, Urban Fantasy
Format: eBook, 409 Pages
Date: 28th April 2015
A young writer burdened with terrible psychological baggage from her past, struggles to make sense of her life and who she is in the wake of discovering a long-held family secret revealed by her recently deceased grandmother. If learning that she is a witch wasn’t hard enough to contend with, nothing can prepare her for being thrust to the centre of an unseen conflict in the paranormal world that will see her confronted by those who wish to destroy her, those who wish to steal her power, and an implacable enemy determined to do both. If she is to survive, she must be stronger than she’s ever been before. Stronger than she believes she can be.
As a reader, few things are as satisfying as discovering, for the first time, a fantastic author who has managed to fly under the radar, completely unnoticed. This feeling is even more pronounced when it is so unexpected, as it was when stumbling upon Sarah Doughty by way of her debut novel, Just Breathe. Urban fantasy and paranormal romance are genres in which great stories and great writing is hard to come by; not to mention there is a distinct lack of originality, and a sameness about much of the content being published that has resulted in very few books truly standing out―given how most titles seem to bleed into each other and feel interchangeable. It wouldn’t be completely unfair to describe both genres as saturated wastelands of mediocrity, with only a small minority of books (notably The Hollows series by Kim Harrison, and The Black Dagger Brotherhood by J.R. Ward) providing the genuine highlights serving as exceptions that prove the rule. But rest assured, readers who take a chance on Just Breathe will be unearthing a writer who is the equal of both Harrison and Ward, as well as a series (Earthen Witch) that has the potential to rival the aforementioned series of the two authors.
Neither, specifically, just one genre or the other, Just Breathe harmoniously straddles the line between paranormal romance and urban fantasy; most readers will be hard pressed to declare it more one than the other. The story incorporates the best elements each genre has to offer―the intriguing lore and action favoured by UF readers, plus the intense romance and sex scenes favoured by PNR readers―bringing them together in a surprisingly original manner. So, while the book certainly makes use of tropes and conventions that readers well versed in both genres would anticipate encountering, it’s not at all detrimental to the story. At no point is there ever a feeling that the author is going through the motions of treading well-worn ground. Consequently, Doughty’s narrative never feels derivative; it is very much its own thing. And what a pleasant change to read a UF/PNR novel without ever really being able to take for granted what will happen next.
Just Breathe is an engaging story pretty much from the outset. This is often the case with books in which the author demonstrates passion for what is being written, and Doughty’s passion for her writing is evident throughout the story, manifesting principally in two ways: world building and characterisation. Though the latter is more noteworthy than the former, in the scheme of things, it is through the lore created for the story that Doughty displays an obvious affinity for the paranormal, and witchcraft etc., and much of what’s good about the story stems from this. While there are familiar elements to be found, vampires, witches and werewolves, for example, there is nothing particularly cookie-cutter about their usage; the author adds her own spin on all these things.
In general, there is nothing too out of the ordinary about the world building, but the lore related to the Earthen Witches, which is central to the plot, is very inventive. All the lore Doughty employs is well conceived and possess some nice touches; the use of coloured auras to communicate the feelings and mental state of her characters is an especially clever narrative device. Yet, although these fantastical elements no doubt provide one of the highlights of the book, when all is said and done it is simply the icing on top of the multi-layered cake. Delving deeper beneath the surface reveals a novel greater than its entertainment value; a novel written for reasons other than the gratification of the author; a novel intended to convey and accomplish more than the typical UF/PNR book aspires to.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Just Breathe lies in the choices made by the author to set her novel apart from the crowd; and it was a successful endeavour. It’s obvious a lot of thought went into the conception and writing of the story. There is an unmistakeable sense (which should be apparent to at least some of the people who read the book) that Doughty approached the writing of the story knowing she had something very different she wanted (maybe even needed) to bring to the table. This desire found expression in the depiction of the book’s female protagonist, Aisling Green, who is unquestionably the most memorable part of the book, which proved to be an unexpected surprise given initial concerns (very early in the story) that she would be a whiny, self-pitying annoyance so commonly found in UF/PNR books.
But Aisling’s heightened emotional state―that makes her her prone to breaking down in tears for seemingly no reason―is gradually revealed to be directly linked to the fantastical lore at the heart of the story, making it easy to understand and accept the intensity of her feelings. Her power is inextricably connected to her emotions, and while historically this power has been shared between twelve individuals, Aisling finds herself having to bear the burden of all the power of the Earthen Witches (and the associated emotions it stirs) on her own, as the world’s only living Earthen Witch. Once this understanding of the character is kindled, Aisling quickly proves to be a very compelling protagonist; a unique one, in fact. It’s hard to think of another UF/PNR heroine quite like her.
There have been (and continue to be) two very distinct trends in how female protagonists are portrayed in urban fantasy and paranormal romance books, neither one of which Aisling fits into. On the one hand, there is the Girl Next Door: the supposedly normal, everyday young woman who is simultaneously special, for reasons that are never expounded upon, and for whom the world inexplicably revolves around. Think Sookie Stackhouse. More recently (perhaps as a reaction to the Girl Next Door) there is the Kick-Ass Babe: the leather wearing, gun-toting badass who effortlessly handles her business, and doesn’t need a man for anything, yet can’t stop becoming entangled with numerous men at the drop of a hat. Think Riley Jenson. Neither trend lends itself to realistic, believable heroines, and as a result most UF/PNR authors end up writing caricatures in their stories. Aisling Green, by comparison, is a different proposition altogether; there is something very genuine and real about her, that’s why she is such a believable character.
What’s most fascinating about Aisling’s character is her tragic backstory. She is carrying a tremendous amount of psychological baggage from her childhood that has significantly shaped her personality and mindset. Her story could almost be a character study, illustrating how physical trauma is easier to cope with (as it heals more quickly and readily) in comparison to psychological trauma which is more insidious, lingering long after the event and leaving scars much harder to come to terms with and overcome. Some of the flashback scenes depicting Aisling’s childhood make for uncomfortable reading, and what makes them that much more disturbing is just how hard it is to shake the feeling the author is drawing upon personal experience to write those scenes. (And having recently had the good fortune to be in contact with Sarah, who kindly provided further insight into the story, I now know that the evoking of this perception is not in any way unintentional. The narrative choices made are very deliberate and serve a specific purpose.)
The portrayal of Aisling not only makes the development of her character throughout the story even more intriguing, it also means Doughty never has to resort to adopting the Kick-Ass Babe trend as a crutch for showing what a strong character Aisling is for the benefit of the reader. Aisling’s strength gradually becomes very apparent as the story progresses, and comes principally from the fact she is a survivor. She endured horrendous physical and psychological mistreatment as a child, maliciously inflicted upon her with the intention of breaking her completely, and though the experience left obvious scars on her psyche she survived the ordeal, damaged but unbroken.
In the end, what makes Aisling’s story such a rewarding one to read is that it culminates in allowing her to finally confront and overcome the demons of her traumatic past, thereby becoming a stronger, happier, more self-assured young woman. For those readers who are able to relate and identify with Aisling on a deeper, more personal level, this conclusion could very well be a source of hope. This kind of portrayal and growth in a character is usually the preserve of literary fiction, so it was very unexpected to find such depth in a UF/PNR novel (and I haven’t even touched upon Aisling’s sexual awakening with her love interest Connor). Most other books in the genres tend to be rather shallow in the themes they tackle.
It’s not often I read a book and find myself wondering about the story behind the story. While reading Just Breathe it was impossible not to think about it. There was something disturbingly real lurking beneath the surface that jumped out at me throughout. I’m very grateful to Sarah for allowing me to know more about what went into the writing of her story; all the insights she provided, further increased my appreciation of the book, while also making redundant my initial quibble about the way in which the antagonist was depicted during the final showdown with Aisling, which briefly took me out of the story. (I’m even prepared to forgive the cliffhanger ending, despite my strong dislike for cliffhangers.)
Just Breathe is a must read book that works on more than one level. On the surface it is a very engaging, fast paced urban fantasy adventure with high stakes, coupled with an intense romantic/erotic love story that is genuinely heart-warming. And this is how most readers are likely to perceive and enjoy the book. But for more insightful readers, who are able to see beneath the surface, there is also a deeper, darker, more disturbing tale being told―one that makes for an even more compelling, albeit very uncomfortable read.
To conclude, I highly recommend Just Breathe―even to readers who wouldn’t normally want to read urban fantasy or paranormal romance books―and as it is a perma-free ebook available from Smashwords, money is no object. It is an always engaging, frequently inventive, and occasionally disturbing story. The author really has written a very impressive book that more than accomplishes everything she set out to achieve with it; and in doing so she has also let the cat out of the bag, exposing the best kept secret in urban fantasy and paranormal romance circles… Sarah Doughty is the secret love child of Kim Harrison and J.R. Ward.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.