Roses and Rot by Kat Howard. ★★★★1/2
Roses and Rot is a hauntingly lovely contemporary fantasy about the bond between two sisters. Imogene and Merin have an abusive mother that they both seek to escape. They hadn’t spoken in years when Merin reaches out. Soon after, both sisters find themselves at an artist’s residency at the prestigious Melete. Imogene’s a writer while Merin’s a dancer, but they are both devoted to their art. However, more is going on at Melete than they ever could have imagined, and it threatens to break the bond between them once and for all.
Imogene’s working on a book of fairy tales drawn from her childhood, and some of her stories are interwoven into the narrative. In many ways, Roses and Rot is itself a modern day fairy story complete with all the darkness and sharp edges of many of the original tales.
Moreover, Roses and Rot is beautifully written. The imagery is evocative, and magic seeps off the page. It reminds me some of reading Eric Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, although I think Roses and Rot is a better book. Not only is Roses and Rot beautiful, it contains substance as well.
I can’t say too much about the fantasy aspect of the book since Imogene herself doesn’t realize what’s going on until just over a third in. I was actually having some problems before that point, but Roses and Rot really turned around and became better than I ever would have suspected.
I can tend to be cynical about books which are about the “specialness” of artists (this is a problem I often have with Charles de Lint’s work). Early on it was looking like it would be a lasting issue with me for Roses and Rot but thankfully it faded away by the end. I think a large part of that is how I got a good feel of who all the characters where, including secondary characters. Ariel was a surprise favorite, and Helena is compelling in her own right, even if she mainly serves as a tragic parallel to the sisters. Something Roses and Rot does very well is show the relationships between women, especially when it comes to sisters and friends.
Roses and Rot is a stunning debut novel that in all likelihood will deserving make some end of the year “best of” lists. I highly recommend it.
I received a free ARC copy of this book from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The book is released on May 17th by Saga Press.