I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Roses and Rot by Kat Howard
Published by Saga Press on May 17 2016
Genres: Adult, Fantasy
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The nitty-gritty: A dreamy and magical story about fairy tales, real and imagined.
Happily ever after is the dropping of a curtain, a signal for applause. It is not a guarantee, and it always has a price.
From the moment I saw this darkly atmospheric cover, I knew I had to read Roses and Rot. And I’m so glad I did. The cover is a good indicator of what to expect from this imaginative story: a dark mystery, secrets and shadows, and a storm that brings sudden change to everything that feels familiar. Lurking just below the surface is another world, one of beauty and danger. Kat Howard’s poetic prose works perfectly for this story about artists who have been given the chance of a lifetime to pursue their craft, and being a lover of the arts myself, I was immediately swept up in Howard’s romantic descriptions.
Imogen and her younger sister Marin haven’t seen each other in ten years, since Imogen left home to escape her abusive mother, but they’re about to become roommates, as both of them have just been accepted into an exclusive artists’ colony called Melete, a secluded community where the best of the best spend nine months studying with a mentor and honing their craft. Imogen is a writer and Marin is a rising ballet star, and upon their arrival at Melete they are charmed by the quirky architecture of the houses and artist studios, as well as the quiet surroundings, perfect for the focus needed to write a novel or work on an opera. They immediately settle in, feeling lucky to have been chosen for the program. Marin connects right away with her mentor, a dancer named Gavin, while Imogen is more hesitant about sharing her work with Beth, the writer who has been assigned to help her.
As they get to know the other artists-in-residence—including a prickly poet named Helene and a singer named Ariel—Imogen begins to notice odd things about Melete. She hears voices when she’s jogging in the woods, and strange things start to happen, like a huge flock of birds gathering in a tree outside her window. She also feels as if she’s being watched, sitting alone in her tower apartment while she writes. Before long, it becomes clear that Melete is far more than it appears on the surface, and Imogen and Marin are faced with a terrible dilemma: how much do they want a successful career in their fields, and just what are they willing to give up to get it?
Imogen is working on a series of fairy tales, the work she’s determined to complete while in residence at Melete, and I loved the way Howard included snippets of her writing with the story, which act as a mirror to what’s really going on at Melete. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but let’s just say that while Imogen didn’t believe in fairy tales before she came here, she’s astounded to discover that some fairy tales are actually real. She’s also exorcising her own personal demons by using fiction to understand her horrible childhood, living with a terribly abusive mother. Howard seems to be making a personal statement about writing through her story, hence her use of a writer as the main character. I quite enjoyed these clever and, yes, meta, sections of the story.
One of my other favorite things in fiction is when authors come up with explanations for the reasons behind real life truths, for example in this case, why is it that some artists are extremely famous and successful while others aren’t? She also comes up with a wonderful explanation about where fairy tales come from—people who actually visited Faerie themselves but were magically prevented from talking about their experiences, and so fairy tales became a way to tell people what happened to them without actually telling them.
Roses and Rot is populated by an interesting cast of characters, all of them with different layers and complex motivations. I loved the sister dynamic between Imogen and Marin, who clearly love each other and will do anything for the other—or will they? Is sisterly love stronger than the desire to gain fame and fortune? Because they have both suffered through childhood with the same mother, those experiences tie them together. Unfortunately, being at Melete is not a guarantee that their relationship will flourish, especially when a competition arises among the artists, and it becomes every girl for herself.
One of my favorite characters turned out to be a singer named Ariel who remains true to herself from start to finish. She’s the rare artist who isn’t willing to make a trade to become famous, since she’s convinced she’s pretty damn special on her own, without any kind of otherworldly help. I also loved Helene, an angry and misunderstood poet with a tragic past who wants nothing more than to escape the prison that Melete seems to have become for her.
Hovering just out of sight in the background is Imogen’s mother, who made it her mission to tear down her daughters at every available opportunity. Although Imogen tells us about the horrible things her mother did to her, it all felt very distant to me. Even though the girls have escaped her, their mother is still sending emails and trying to control their lives. Her off-stage presence, though, just didn’t feel that threatening, for some reason, and I felt it was the weakest part of the story.
The overall magical atmosphere of Roses and Rot makes this a must read, especially if you love to delve into the deeper meanings of fairy tales. Romantic, thrilling and full of dangerous magic, Kat Howard has written a wonderful debut, and I can’t wait to see what she does next.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.