Roses and Rot by Kat Howard fantasy book reviewsRoses and Rot by Kat Howard fantasy book reviewsRoses and Rot by Kat Howard

Roses and Rot (2016) is a slow-building but beautifully written dark fantasy, loosely based on a familiar folk tale that isn’t disclosed until about a third of the way into the novel, so I’ll refrain from giving it away. Primarily Roses and Rot explores the relationship between two adult sisters and their devotion to their respective arts, and how that affects their relationship during a year they spend at Melete, an elite fine arts retreat program in New Hampshire. At the same time, it asks hard questions of its characters, and of us as readers, about what we are willing to sacrifice in the pursuit of our art, or any other personal goal.

Imogen, the narrator and older sister, is an author who uses fairy tale themes and motifs in her stories; her sister Marin is a gifted ballet dancer. The sisters’ relationship is loving but fraught with difficulties ― the damage caused by an abusive mother who hides her viciousness from all except her two daughters. Imogen escaped from home at age 16 by gaining admission and a scholarship to a prestigious boarding school. The sisters don’t reconnect for several years, for reasons that become apparent later in the story. But at Melete, an artist’s colony named after one of the original three Greek muses (“Practice”), they hope to rebuild their relationship as well as improve their talents.

As Imogen and Merin delve into their art and new relationships, events at Melete initially bring them together but eventually pull them apart. Merin begins a romantic relationship with her mentor, a famous principal dancer with the National Ballet Theater; Imogen with a mysterious and elusive sculptor, who creates awe-inspiring metal sculptures and appears only infrequently at Melete. Mostly, however, the sisters’ relationship is hurt by their deepening competition with each other for a prize that promises greatness, but at a disturbingly high price.

Never mind the other fellows — they didn’t fit into jealousy’s calculus that told me there was one place, and two sisters, and that all of this would come down to the two of us. One would speak diamonds, the other, toads. Never mind that both were uncomfortable and a curse — one was still better.

The mystery surrounding certain oddities at Melete builds slowly and steadily. It was great fun when I finally realized what familiar folktale Kat Howard is referencing. Howard gives the old tale some surprising twists, but they mesh extremely well with the universal themes that she explores in this tale: cruelty and pain initially appear in the story of past parental abuse, but resurface later in events spurred by betrayal and greed. Love, both romantic and sisterly, plays a role. And there is the overarching question of the pursuit of a cherished goal, and what one might sacrifice for it.Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

Howard weaves in vignettes from fairy tales written by Imogen, which reflect these themes and give them additional depth and resonance.

Nothing lasts forever, and midnight is a purposeful stop. A pause to remind you that there is always a clock ticking. There will never be enough time, and for every Beauty who saves her Beast, there will be a voiceless mermaid who dissolves into sea foam.


But there is another thing about midnight. It is when illusions break. When you can see the truth beneath them, if you are looking. There is always a crack in the illusion, a gap in the perfection, even if it is only visible with the ticking of a clock. 

Roses and Rot has lovely language and imagery that will appeal to readers who like evocative writing. I had a few issues with the slow pacing in parts of the story, and the abruptness of one key betrayal that I thought lacked sufficient foundation and plausibility in the way it occurred, but overall I enjoyed Roses and Rot thoroughly.

Published May 17, 2016. What would you sacrifice for everything you ever dreamed of? Imogen has grown up reading fairy tales about mothers who die and make way for cruel stepmothers. As a child, she used to lie in bed wishing that her life would become one of these tragic fairy tales because she couldn’t imagine how a stepmother could be worse than her mother now. As adults, Imogen and her sister Marin are accepted to an elite post-grad arts program—Imogen as a writer and Marin as a dancer. Soon enough, though, they realize that there’s more to the school than meets the eye. Imogen might be living in the fairy tale she’s dreamed about as a child, but it’s one that will pit her against Marin if she decides to escape her past to find her heart’s desire.


  • Tadiana Jones

    TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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