Roses and Rot: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Roses and Rot by Kat HowardImogen 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.

Find it on Bookshop.

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

An Unkindness of Magicians: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat HowardFortune’s Wheel has begun its Turning. When it ceases rotation, all will be made new.

So begins every Turning in the Unseen World. Letters, emails, and other missives are sent to every House throughout New York City–a warning to prepare.

Some like Laurent Beauchamps–an outsider as a Black man and a new initiate to magic–hope to establish their own Houses. Others like Laurent’s best friend Grey Prospero–a legacy to magic despite being disinherited–see this Turning as a chance to prove themselves and reclaim what should rightfully be theirs no matter the cost.

The Turning is also a chance for established Houses like the Merlins to maintain their position at the top ruling over the Unseen World. While leaders of larger Houses like Miranda Prospero hope to grasp at this chance to shake things up.

Houses can represent themselves in the Turning or hire out help. Miranda doesn’t know what to make of Ian Merlin choosing to represent her House instead of his own father’s but she knows she can’t afford to turn down Ian’s offer if she wants to finally wrest power away from Miles Merlin.

What no one at the Turning counted on was Sydney: the mysterious champion Laurent hires. An outsider herself, Sydney knows how magic works and she knows it is breaking. If she has her way, the entire magic system underpinning the Unseen World will be destroyed before she’s finished.

Fortune’s Wheel is turning. Some will rise, some will fall. But at the end of this one, everything will change and it will be time for the world to be remade in An Unkindness of Magicians (2017) by Kat Howard.

Find it on Bookshop.

An Unkindness of Magicians is a standalone urban fantasy with a shifting close third person narration. The story unfolds in different directions as the narratives shifts between Sydney, Miranda, Ian and other key players in both the Unseen World and the Turning itself.

Against the backdrop of the Turning and its magical competitions Howard builds out the Unseen World, its archaic hierarchies, and the iniquities at the center of how magic is used and distributed in a sharp examination of privilege and legacy. Unsolved murders throughout the Unseen World add another dimension to this already rich story.

An Unkindness of Magicians is a nuanced and intricate novel with a slow build as plots and characters begin to intersect in advance of a sensational conclusion. Howard populates this story with a group of fiercely determined and clever characters–especially women–looking for justice and victory in a world that would willingly to cast them aside. Highly recommended.

Possible Pairings: All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, All of Us Villains by Amanda Foody and Christine Lynn Herman, Magic For Liars by Sarah Gailey, The Magicians by Lev Grossman, The Devouring Gray by Christine Lynn Herman, A Criminal Magic by Lee Kelly, Middlegame by Seanan McGuire, The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, Vicious by V. E. Schwab, A Treason of Thorns by Laura E. Weymouth