Imogen has spent her life reading fairy tales and wishing she could live in one herself. Surely even an evil stepmother would be better than her actual mother. Surely a chance at adventure–even a dangerous one–would be better than waiting, constantly and always, to see what new ways her mother would find to hurt her, to try and turn her and her younger sister Marin against each other.
By the time she’s sixteen, Imogen has found a way out. She has to leave Marin behind. But their mother never hurts Marin the same way she hurts Imogen. And sometimes there is no happily ever after. Sometimes there’s just survival.
Now Imogen and Marin are adults, trying to mend their years-long estrangement and about to live together for the first time since their adolescence at an elite artists’ colony–Imogen for her creative writing and Marin as a dancer. Everything about the program, from its list of accomplished mentors to the patina of success that seems to cling to every alumni, seems too good to be true.
It’s also impossible to pass up.
Once they arrive the program seems to be everything the brochures promised and more. But the pressure is real too. Marin knows taking a year off from performing as a dancer is risky and she isn’t sure it will pay off–even with the attentions of her famous mentor. Imogen, meanwhile, knows the colony is the perfect place to begin piecing together her novel.
But not everything is as it seems. As Imogen and Marin learn more about the program and its background, the sisters realize that success can mean very different things–and have a much higher cost–than either of them ever imagined in Roses and Rot (2016) by Kat Howard.
Roses and Rot is Howard’s debut novel. Most major characters, with the exception of Ariel who is described as dark skinned, are white. The novel is narrated by Imogen with excerpts from the fairy tales she is working on during her fellowship.
Howard’s writing is beautiful as she brings the secluded artist’s colony to life with atmospheric descriptions of the changing seasons and the woods looming nearby. References to Imogen’s abusive mother in narrative asides and small flashbacks lend menace to the story as readers learn more about the events leading up to Imogen and Marin’s estrangement.
While all of the pieces are there, the ultimate reveal in Roses and Rot feels abrupt with a payoff that is disproportionate to the buildup as fantasy elements are added to the narrative. Imogen makes sense as the center of the story however her arc is ultimately one of the least interesting as she works to save her sister from her own success. Added elements of competition between the sisters also crop up with almost no explanation beyond the existence of their previous estrangment.
Roses and Rot is a strongly evocative debut that explores the power of both success and creativity as well as the deeper motivations that drive artists to strive for their best. Themes of sacrifice and belonging are explored to better effect in Howard’s stronger sophomore novel An Unkindness of Magicians, an urban fantasy and obvious progression from this debut.
Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Bunny by Mona Awad, War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, Tam Lin by Pamela Dean, Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson