Author’s note: there are spoilers in this review.
Introduction: If by now your parents and/or life haven’t taught you that you cannot chase two rabbits at the same time, Sarah Doughty’s latest novel, Listen, will. Renata Crane, a powerful voodoo priestess from New Orleans wants more power than she already has: she wants the earthen powers of Aisling Green – she goes after her. She wants the shamaness powers of Angela Williams – she goes after her. She already has Dracula in her vice, but she wants the blood of Liam, a vampire, to give her more power – she goes after him. She doesn’t go after them one after the other, she goes after them all at once, and in the end, she loses her head – literally.
Dangers of absolute power: If this novel teaches you nothing else, it will teach you the quest for excessive power will destroy you. Aisling and her friends were stuck for ideas until Liam discovers Renata’s vulnerability in the most unlikely way. Renata’s vulnerability? Chasing too many rabbits in the quest for more power: she inherited Dracula from her adoptive mother, Marie Laveau. Not satisfied, she decides to go after Liam, Dracula’s son, believing his blood will be more potent; using Dracula as bait, she lures and captures Liam (and Jon, his trusted assistant); in possession of two vampires, she makes the mistake of ‘sacrificing’ Dracula; now she has two rabbits but she goes chasing two more rabbits (Aisling and Angela); then she tastes Liam’s blood and realizes it is not as potent as Dracula’s – Liam notices this, tells Aisling who uses it to set her up in the final battle. Liam knows she would want Dracula back, and in that moment of want she would be vulnerable. So they set her up using Dracula as bait; then, though subtle, at the point in the final battle when it is obvious Aisling and her friends are having trouble dealing with the zombies, she notices Connor has earthen witch powers – a sixth rabbit. She freezes all three of them and goes to get their powers. Somebody should have told Renata you don’t chase more than one rabbit because you lose your head doing so.
Gathering storm: At the end of Home, Aisling’s grandmother summons Angela to the Spirit Realm and tells her, “She’s coming for Aisling. You need to warn her. Protect her.” She doesn’t tell her who is coming for Aisling, and this cliffhanger does not indicate the point of attack will be round-about. So, at the beginning of Listen, Aisling, who is still unaware of her grandmother’s warning, says she is tired of war. This is almost like the camp-fire scene in movies – the scene where there is a lull in the action before all hell breaks lose. Soon after making this statement, Aisling starts to have dream-sights of someone in captivity, but nothing in her powers will give her any clarity on the identity of this person in captivity. In fact, she comes to the ironic conclusion that the subject of her dream-sight cannot be Liam because, to her, Liam was too smart to find himself in a situation like that. Not even the fact that Liam and Jon have been gone for nearly a week was clue enough.
However, with time, she realizes that the person in her dream-sight is Liam, that he and Jon have been captured when they went looking for Dracula. Soon enough, vital information emerge, for instance, the person responsible for Liam and Jon’s disappearance is Renata Crane. Also, though they had already defeated Renata in her quest to control the Spirit Realm, they are aware that rescuing Liam and Jon was going to be a huge task because voodoo by itself was a dangerous beast, since it dealt with necromancy, curses, and other nasty things witches wouldn’t touch, even most dark witches. But rescue Liam and Jon they must.
What happens next is the dream of the average autograph seeker. Each of us have that one person we most want to meet, for Aisling, this person is Dracula. So you can imagine her elation when they go to rescue Liam and Jon in a disused warehouse in Memphis, they lose Liam and Jon in the process, but rescue Vlad Tepes – Dracula. Doughty writes that Aisling’s “jaw dropped,” when she realizes the man they have just rescued is the vaunted Dracula. I enjoyed what Doughty does with Dracula. It reminds me why I enjoy reading the plays of Euripides, the third of the famous Greek tragedians. Euripides humanized the gods, by bringing them down from their Olympian heights so they could be closer to the humans whose lives they controlled. He may not have won many contests, he may be less popular than Aeschylus and Sophocles, but I enjoy reading Euripides’ works because he was responsible for bringing tragedy closer to the experience of the ordinary citizen while introducing heroes in rags and crutches and in tears. Most importantly, Euripides insisted that nobility was not necessarily an attribute of social status.
I get this with the character of Liam, and Sarah Doughty continues this trend in Listen by humanizing Dracula. For instance, when they found him, Dracula looked like a hobo, dressed in dirty, dark clothing and he looked like he hadn’t seen scissors or a razor in at least five years. His hair was long, oily and matted, and his beard didn’t look much better; his captivity and torture – Marie Laveau, the original voodoo queen of New Orleans, seduced him, drained his blood, and took him captive; after his rescue, swearing on his life, Dracula promises to help Aisling defeat Renata even if it meant following her into hell. He also pledges that for as long as he is alive, and long after Renata is dead, he will remain by Aisling’s side; Dracula helps Aisling and Connor to hear the heartbeat of their unborn child; he has a sense of humor – when a group of undead blocked their entrance into New Orleans he suggests they, “drive over them”; and when Aisling plots their final assault on Renata they needed to stall Renata. In spite of everything he had experienced in his life, and the fact that he didn’t like the suggestion any more than Aisling did, he agreed to be bound, bloodied and gagged to stall Renata. Anyone familiar with what Doughty has done with the character of Liam, will fall in love with Dracula – his father. Yes, Dracula is Liam’s biological father, and he sired both Liam and Jon as vampires. That is why Renata was able to use him as bait to lure and capture Liam.
Sarah lights the fuse: Aisling and her friends must rescue Liam and Jon. This, as Doughty brilliantly narrates, was not an easy task – this is when this novel sucks you in. In Renata Crane, Doughty creates a crafty, cunning, and thinking adversary, one you’d rather have in your rank than fight against. Renata is able to infiltrate their defenses using gris-gris (voodoo dolls and objects), and the blood bond she has with Dracula and Aisling when she inadvertently receives Dracula’s blood when he attacks her under Renata’s spell. Knowing the limitations of witches, of not being able to see wraiths, she unleashes them on Aisling and her friends. She is able to possess William as well, and though he didn’t come out and say it, his words in the moments leading up to the fight with the undead blocking their entry into New Orleans lure Aisling into a fight that almost ends in Angela and Aisling killing each other under Renata’s spell. Renata also knows how to inflict psychological pain. While Aisling and her friends are fighting the undead blocking their way, Renata abducts Peter, the boy ghost adopted by Angela and Salvatore in Home.
Plot wise: this novel seems slow at the start – don’t be fooled. Those fainting spells Aisling experiences at the start of the novel are enough to keep you preoccupied till the action suddenly explodes when Aisling realizes she has been seeing through the eyes of the captured Liam. Then, Aisling and her friends are thrust into a situation they didn’t know how to handle, with Renata always one step ahead. One other thing that fascinates me, and this is one of the biggest issues Aisling and her friends face, is the fact that Renata does not use the same tricks twice. This made it that much harder for Aisling and her friends to anticipate her moves. For instance, just when they think they have the answer to Renata’s use of wraiths by employing ghosts from the Spirit Realm, she unleashes zombies on them in the final battle.
Frozen with fear: the most enthralling technique Renata uses on (Aisling especially) is paralysis through fear. On several occasions, Renata has Aisling paralyzed with fear – she goes cold, immobile and unaware of what’s going on around her. Aisling mentions her fear forty-three times in this novel. Apart from Aisling, Renata succeeds in instilling fear in Liam – a fear Aisling can feel through dream-sights and her blood bond with Liam. A fear Aisling describes as ‘foreign’, ‘unwanted’ and confusing. Fear is the biggest problem for Aisling and her friends, even the usually unflappable Liam “felt the craggy hands of fear clutching at his spine,” and it forces him to speak the unimaginable, “help me.” It is enthralling how Renata manages to constantly leave Aisling and her friends frozen with fear with every attempt they make to free Liam and Jon. I liked the way the fear shifts in the final battle – Renata becomes the one who experiences fear when she sees first-hand the power Aisling possesses, but this fear is short-lived. I wonder what would have happened if Aisling’s grandmother’s ghost didn’t interfere as Renata crawled towards Angela, Connor and Aisling towards the end.
Pregnant pause: I also find Aisling’s pregnancy fascinating. To me, it was obvious from the first time Aisling experiences a fainting spell and throws up that she is pregnant, what I didn’t know at the time was how it was going to affect and spice up the battle with Renata, believe me, this is what stokes the conflict in this novel. First of all, as Aisling will find out from Dracula, because she is pregnant her physical energy is lower, but crucially, her power wanes faster, which is not a state you want to be in going into battle with a clever adversary as Renata. The fact that Aisling is likely to faint just when her friends need her most in battle remains on your mind throughout this novel. Doughty craftily explores this residual thought in the novel – she sets you up for the gripping suspense of the final battle. Before the final batter, Aisling experiences a fainting spell every time they confront Renata, and she ends up, each time, consumed by fear-induced paralysis. But the way Doughty uses this vulnerability in the final battle is sheer brilliance. During the final battle, Aisling, with the help of Angela, unleash a storm to frighten Renata. Then Aisling has a fainting spell and starts to dry heave. In an attempt to protect Aisling by keeping the storm going, Renata sees Connor showing off earthen witch powers. Soon after, under Renata’s spell, Aisling, Angela and Connor fall prey to the storm. First, Aisling loses her hearing, she starts to struggle with her breathing, then she loses sight of Renata. Angela, Connor, the ghosts from the Spirit Realm and the zombies freeze, except Aisling. Frozen and vulnerable, Renata starts to crawl towards Angela, Connor and Aisling from behind – her aim, to take their powers. But because of the retching Aisling doesn’t lose consciousness. In that instance she is grateful for the pregnancy, as she is able to see Renata right at the moment she reaches out to strike all three of them …
Final thoughts: this is a tale brilliantly told – the description of events and locales is vivid, the plot is laced with nice suspense, the conflict is intricately strong, the obstacles put in the way of the protagonists become more difficult as the plot progresses, and each character is well developed. If you do nothing else in the next few weeks, grab yourself a copy of Sarah Doughty’s Listen.
Rating: 5 stars.