Stories of the Fair Folk are not at all then what we think of as fairy tales, those moralistic stories wherein evil is punished and virtue triumphs, that were set safely in once upon a time, and had happy endings guaranteed. True fairy tales are horror stories.
—Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard
Roses and Rot begins with a brief chapter that introduces two sisters who both dream of escape, who share a strong bond forged through shared trauma, abuse, and a miserable childhood. Even with the tension between them—the older daughter, Imogen, is packing to leave for the boarding school she got into behind their mother’s back, which will leave the younger daughter, Marin, alone at home to fend for herself—there’s still immense love there, and trust. Which makes the last paragraph that much more effectively gutting:
I didn’t go home for Christmas, or any other holiday. I didn’t even speak to my sister again for four years. We didn’t live under the same roof for almost seven years after that.
The story picks up years later, with the sisters reunited, both accepted into the prestigious—and somewhat mysterious—artists’ colony at Melete: Imogen for writing, and Marin for ballet. Prestigious, in that scores of hugely successful artists in every conceivable medium have attended, and mysterious, in that despite whispers of past scandal, Imogen has been unable to dig up anything concrete about the place beyond information that clearly originated with Melete’s public relations office. For both sisters, the opportunity to reconnect—away from their poisonous mother—and the opportunity to focus entirely on their art for nine months overrides any concerns about Melete’s seemingly Too Good To Be True deal.
As you may have inferred from the quote at the beginning, Roses and Rot is a faerie story. Not just that, it’s the best kind of faerie story: it’s dark and thorny, and the fae are beautiful and horrible, dangerous, and hungry. The first third feels occasionally choppy—the contemporary dialogue clashes with the excerpts from Imogen’s fairy tales, as well as with the more surreal descriptions of the grounds and residents of Melete—but once the reveal happens, everything clicks. Looking back, that off-kilter feeling of the first third is entirely appropriate, because it forces the reader through the same sensory dissonance that Imogen experiences before she knows what’s happening—understanding the true nature of the place doesn’t make it any less strange, but her acceptance of her experience allows her to roll with it, rather than struggle to explain it away.
This book is a love letter about creating art, directed at artists and creators in general and to the specific stories and authors that have preceded it—from Narnia to Angela Carter, Tam Lin to The Little Mermaid, from Ray Bradbury to Ellen Kushner to Delia Sherman to Neil Gaiman to Terry Pratchett to Maria Tatar. Howard does an especially excellent job working in details and nods to previous stories and lore while also creating her own original set of rules, characters, and images, of writing a story that feels old and new.
It shows the insularity of the arts community, the isolation that sometimes comes with the act of creation, but it also feels welcoming and loving and warm. It’s a story about stories and creation as a mode of survival; about imposter syndrome and ambition and competition; about loving someone so much that you’re willing to sacrifice your relationship with her in order to keep her safe. It’s about sisters, about mothers and daughters; about reaching out to other people, about being vulnerable; about being willing to do the right thing for the wrong reasons and the wrong thing for the right ones; about manipulation and fear and jealousy, about bravery, forgiveness, and love.
It’s an adult market book, but will definitely have plenty of appeal for mature YA fans of darker fantasy. Howard has another book due out sometime next year, and I’m already looking forward to reading it.
In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is currently serving on the Amelia Bloomer Project committee, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.