Published by Saga Press on May 17th 2016
They say there’s a certain amount of truth in fairy tales. Despite their fantastical nature, the stories usually have some basis in reality, providing a moral compass during turbulent times, often teaching lessons which can be applied to one’s own life. If nothing else, the “trueness” may lie in the big picture rather than the details, such as the honesty of the character’s emotions or the essence of their relationships. How far would you go to save someone you love, for instance? And what might you be willing to sacrifice to get your happily ever after?
Roses and Rot is a novel that encompasses these concepts, using metafiction to address the basic literary conventions of fairy tales in order to convey the story’s full purpose and meaning. It follows the lives of two sisters, both of whom are talented artists in their own fields. Imogen, our narrator, is a writer, while her younger sibling Marin’s passion is in dance. The two of them grew up together suffering at the hands of their cruel, controlling and abusive mother, but it was awkward and introspective Imogen who bore the brunt of the mistreatment. This prompted Imogen to leave home as soon as she was able to, using the money she saved in secret to attend boarding school, even though her own escape meant having to leave Marin behind.
Now nearly ten years later, the sisters are in their twenties and have seized upon an opportunity to reconnect. At Marin’s urging, Imogen applies with her to a prestigious post-graduate arts program at an institution called Melete, and both end up being accepted. The school is a dream come true, a quiet retreat in the scenic woods where fellows can dedicate their full attention to their art. For Imogen and Marin, it is also a safe haven where they can finally be free of their terrible “Mommy Dearest”. They even get to live in the same house, among other residences styled like modern castles complete with moats and tower rooms. Unfortunately for the sisters, however, the peace doesn’t last. After a while, Imogen starts noticing strange things happening about on campus—nature behaves differently here, with the paths through the woods seeming to wind and shift with a life of their own, and she can never shake that unsettling feeling of being watched. As it turns out, there is more to the school than meets the eye. When she first arrived, Imogen remembered thinking how all the wonders and beauty of Melete reminded her of a fairy tale. Little did she know how close she came to the truth.
I didn’t know what to expect when I first started this book, given the vagueness of the publisher description. Even now, I find it hard to talk about it without giving away too many of its secrets. There’s a major fantastical element to this story but it remains elusive, teasing at the edges of perception, until the mysteries of Melete are ultimately revealed. The initial build-up is slow, but that also allows the setting a chance to draw you in with its haunting and almost dream-like atmosphere. The magic is subtle, at least at first, before it eventually grows to become this negative force which drives a wedge between Imogen and Marin. As children, the sisters were always close, helping each other survive their mother’s horrible abuses. At Melete though, the strength of that bond might just be tested. The two young women are presented with a dilemma which pits the love they have for each other against the love for their art.
At its heart, Roses and Rot is a modern-day fairy tale, and it earns that distinction by featuring themes of love and sacrifice. Choices are made. Prices are paid. As we all know, Faerie magic always demands something in return, but what you buy might not be what you get. And sometimes, even the Fae themselves are the victims of their own rigid, convoluted rules.
Sisterhood is obviously a central focus of this novel, with Imogen and Marin’s shared memories of living with their awful mother being a formative experience that shapes them both. Reading about the things they endured was so distressing at times, it literally made me sick to my stomach and made me want to go and hug my own daughters tight. For Imogen, that kind of poisonous upbringing also made her insecure and unsure of her talent as a writer, further stoking that need to prove herself to the world. However, anyone with a passion for their art, no matter what their field, will undoubtedly see something of themselves in Imogen and the other characters at Melete. The question though, is how much are you willing to give up for your dreams? Kat Howard explores this conflict with gentle compassion and her beautiful, powerful writing.
Roses and Rot is a clever and emotional story of love, magic, and imagination. I loved it. I would recommend this novel highly, especially for creative types and lovers of all things Fae and fairy tale. A truly delightful treat for fans of contemporary fantasy who enjoy vivid settings, complex characters, and meaningful relationships.
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