Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

This book is not quite my usual fare, I would say. I rarely read urban fantasy, and I even more rarely enjoy it, but this was a definite exception. In retrospect, I don’t really know what made me pick this book up (as in, physically pick it up off the shelves at the bookstore). I’m glad I did, but in the end, I think there were two factors here: a blurb from Neil Gaiman, and one line on the back cover. “What would you sacrifice in the name of success?”

Roses and Rot is far from the first book to ask that question, but most often when it is asked of a protagonist, that protagonist is a white dude and the book is “literary fiction”. I was really interested to see that question asked of a female protagonist in a fantasy setting. It’s a question I ask myself often, and I think most ambitious, goal-oriented people do as well. What would you sacrifice in the name of success? It’s not an easy question. Coincidentally, I got a Facebook memory today informing me that seven years ago, I asked myself “What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” Today, my answer might be to write an ambitious, yet grounded story like this one.

Roses and Rot is the story of two sisters, Imogen and Marin, who are both accepted to a prestigious arts fellowship at Melete, a retreat for creative-types. Imogen is a writer, Marin is a dancer; at Melete, they meet sculptors, painters, singers, poets, artists of all stripes. This is the first time the sisters find themselves together after several years of separation, having both escaped the household of their abusive mother. They’ve been given this year to focus on their creative pursuits in an aura of innovation and genius (and competition). But of course – as these things do – Melete is hiding a dark secret.

I won’t lie – when I first started reading the book, I spent a good half hour wondering when the “fantasy” element of the genre was going to kick in, because it did not happen right away. Imogen, a lover of fairy tales, is attempting to write a grand one during her residence at Melete. It turns out to be a good thing that she is so well-versed in them, as Melete is a meeting place between the mortal realm and the world of the fey folk, who imbue the retreat with that aforementioned aura of innovation and genius. Every seven years, the fey take a tithe from the residents – someone to stay with them and feed their own world with their spirit. And yet, every year people vie for the opportunity, as they are guaranteed unparalleled success after those seven years are up.

Most of the tension in this book comes from the relationship between Imogen and Marin. Their friendship is already fragile from years of separation and the mental and emotional abuse their mother heaped on them. Both of them are ready to start repairing their relationship… but both of them are also dedicated to being the tithe, to being the best, and to sacrificing themselves to protect the other. This of course causes quite a bit of conflict between them, no matter how much they obviously love each other. It’s a good plot conflict; it kept me engaged the whole way through. I’m all about ambitious women who work hard and are passionate about their craft, and this book delivers them in spades.

The subplot that I might knock off points for is the romance subplot between Imogen and Evan. He is a mysterious artist (a sculptor, in fact) at the retreat, and Imogen develops a relationship with him. What I liked about it is that they aren’t together at the end of the book (good, because he just does not deserve her at all). What I didn’t like was the trajectory of the subplot. I know cheating is a perfectly fine plot device – it’s dramatic, it’s realistic, it’s certainly tried and true. I just don’t like it. It is not my cup of tea. I’d prefer my romantic tension to come in other ways. So I was sort of disappointed when that happened.

What I was really fascinated by was Melete itself. While reading this book, I was hit by a pretty big question that I waited until the end of the book to google, and my suspicions were confirmed: Kat Howard is an alumna of the Clarion Writers Workshop. Clarion is a six-week intensive writing “retreat” that has produced a frankly astonishing number of successful, professional fiction writers. It seems to me like that was definitely part of the inspiration for Melete. Of course, Melete is a year compared to six weeks, is open to all forms of art rather than just prose writing, but you know, the bones of it are there.

Of course I’ve had the desire to go to Clarion for several years now (I’m a loooong way away, if ever). The allure of Melete, if it were real, would be even stronger. A year of time with a dedicated mentor, no distractions in the outside world, no concerns about money, and nothing to focus on but honing your craft. Who wouldn’t be tempted? It’s a great backdrop for the book; this is a story where the setting is key to the plot. The idea of Melete is something that drew me in as much as the characters themselves, and that’s pretty rare (again, especially for an urban fantasy).

This was a really great book, for all that I wasn’t sure about it for the first few chapters. Although I’d definitely read more in this setting, following these characters, I think this story was about as complete as can be. I think that this book works best as a standalone, as much as I want more. Kat Howard just had a new book come out called An Unkindness of Magicians, however, and I certainly plan to pick that up soon.

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