“Happily ever after is the dropping of a curtain, a signal for applause. It is not a guarantee, and it always has a price” (Howard).
I first heard of Roses and Rot by Kat Howard on the All the Books podcast. Liberty and Rebecca and the rest of the Book Riot team are partly responsible for my ever-growing TBR list. When I heard that it was a modern fairy tale, I rushed to find it. Fairy tales are my thing. Old ones, new ones, I don’t care. Then, I saw the mixed reviews. There are many people who love this book. But, there are just as many that were disappointed in it.
Roses and Rot is a debut novel by Kat Howard that retells the story of Tam Lin, a beloved Scottish folk ballad. The story follows two sisters, Imogen and Marin, one dark, one light, one a dancer, one a writer. After surviving an abusive childhood and being apart for many years, the sisters decide to apply together to an artist’s retreat called Melete. In the beginning, Melete seems perfect, a place to reconnect with each other and to focus on their art. But, Melete is not all that it seems, and its glossy perfection is a mirage for deeper and darker magic. And it may demand more of the artists than they are willing to give. The sisters must, in the end, decide if art and success are worth the sacrifices they will have to make.
This book had all of my favorite things: an atmospheric setting, fairy tales, discussions of art and ambition, sibling rivalry, suspense, and beautiful prose. However, after reading a quarter of the novel, I was almost ready to give up. The characters felt flat, and though many sentences were so perfect I had to read them aloud, there were others that felt over the top and contrived. I also struggled, surprisingly, with the fairy tale interjections in the first half of the book. While at Melete, Imogen attempts to write a book of fairy tales. Throughout the chapters of Roses and Rot, Howard includes passages that Imogen writes. I appreciate what the author was doing, and I normally like this kind of structural device. However,these sections didn’t seem necessary to the story. Not until much later, at least.
Then, the plot took off. The last half of the book, in my opinion, reveals Kat Howard’s strengths, her language, her passion, and her ability to weave a good yarn. I devoured this last half in one sitting. Somehow, the magic felt more real and more alive. And there was more at stake for the characters and their futures. Kat Howard’s ability to examine the relationships between art and ambition were unflinchingly honest and sometimes uncomfortable to read. I admire the writer’s vulnerability in these sections and her ability to make me question myself.
The characters could still have been drawn more fully, but in the end, the story and fairy tale conventions came together beautifully. It is near the end that Imogen’s fairy tales make the most sense, weaving together the threads of the story and delivering a powerful punch. In this novel, Kat Howard asks the reader to examine magic, art, loss, trauma, womanhood, family relationships, and the power of stories in our lives. Ultimately, novels like Roses and Rot ask us to define truth for ourselves, and Howard does it beautifully.
“There are fairy tales where silence matters. Where a particular truth must not be told to a particular person, where shirts of stinging nettles must be woven without even the smallest whimper of pain or else a curse will not be broken. The silence binds back like thorns, wrapping and stopping the mouth of the person who could speak the truth and save herself, who must instead stand, tied to the stake, waiting for the voice of the fire.”
The few problems I had with this book in the beginning were not enough to detract from a magical novel. I’m looking forward to seeing more from this author, especially as she grows and hones her already remarkable skills.