Summary: Imogen and her sister Marin escape their cruel mother to attend a prestigious artists’ retreat, but soon learn that living in a fairy tale requires sacrifices, whether it be art or love in this haunting debut novel from “a remarkable young writer” (Neil Gaiman).
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.
Review: Being an artist is residence is something I’ve dreamed of for years. It’s still a goal of mine, to be good enough that someone’s willing to provide me space and exposure so that I can focus on my art for a time, even if that means paying a hefty chunk of change. It’s something that pushes me to improve my art, that goal down the road that keeps me moving forward. I’ve had a fascination with them ever since I learned what they were.
So, a dark urban fantasy set in an artist residence? Sign me the hell up!
I want to take a quick moment to state, before the review really begins, that whoever in marketing decided that this should have a whole load of YA blogger outreach, well, didn’t really understand the book. This isn’t a YA novel. It lacks all the hallmarks of a YA novel. That isn’t to say that people who read a lot of YA won’t enjoy this, but teens aren’t the intended audience for this, and it’s pretty clear early on. I’d maybe class it as new adult, if I had to categorize it as something other than “a damn good urban fantasy novel” to begin with.
Now that’s aside, on to the meat of the review.
Imogen and Marin are sisters with a dark past. Abused by their mother, who saw Marin as potential for her own glory and Imogen as nothing compared to her sister, they both drown themselves in their art; writing and ballet, respectively. So when both of them win a residency spot at the highly-regarded Melete, a place that will pair them with a mentor and give them time and assistance to advance their chosen arts, it seems like something of a dream come true.
Only the dreams turn to nightmares as Melete’s true nature is revealed, peeling back the layers and stripping people bare and forcing them to confront the ultimate artist’s question: What would you sacrifice to achieve your dreams?
Be prepared to confront some disturbing darkness while reading Roses and Rot. It’s the kind of book that will strike chords with those who have experienced parental abuse or neglect, especially that driven by a parent who thinks their child’s success is nothing more than a reflection of the parent. Marin and Imogen’s mother treated them very differently, pushing Marin to succeed at ballet by constant negative reinforcement, threats, and insults, while treating Imogen as though she were less than dirt, only a hindrance to her talented sister, going so far as to burn Imogen’s hands when she’s discovered writing stories. The sisters experience a constant layer of dread in their lives, even after becoming adults and moving away from home, the knowledge that their mother will always try to contact them, try to worm her way back in, try to put them down and make their achievements all about her. I didn’t experience a family situation that bad, thankfully, but my own childhood was rough enough, and I know well that underfeeling of anxiety about every email, every phone call. Howard portrayed all that extremely well, and I felt that tension throughout the novel, even to the sort-of-resolution at the end.
The twist on fairy tales is beautifully done in Roses and Rot, and I couldn’t find fault with the setup at all. It was actually quite intriguing, and it left me wondering, at numerous points, what I would do were I in such a situation. Would I accept 10 years of imprisonment in another realm, essentially letting fairies feed from me, for the prize of success, of a guaranteed career that would last and would let me achieve all I worked for. The whole story was a tale of sacrifice, of potential, and or wondering what might be. It was great to see it all unfold, and to have so many thoughts provoked in me. What would you give up for success? How much is security worth? How much can you love someone or something, to exchange it for something else? These are hard questions to ask, ones that have no answer outside the individual, and Howard stressed them constantly through the book without letting the reader feel like they were being beaten over the head with an unanswerable moral judgment.
There’s so much I want to say about this book that, unfortunately, would result in my spoiling a beautiful and well-told story. What’s happening at Melete doesn’t stay a secret for long, and yet at every turn there was a new surprise, something unexpected, something to make my heart lurch. I shed tears more than once, while reading this. There’s some sections that will be triggering for some, particularly relating to child abuse, anxiety, and suicide. The content is dark and profound, beautiful and raw and full of emotion. It’s not an easy read. There’s love, betrayal, beauty, death, resolution, and sacrifice. It’s hopeful and sad at the same time, and the weight of Imogen’s decision can be felt increasingly as the story progresses.
In a nutshell, this book wrecked me. Wrung me out and left me a brand new shape, because it touched on so many personal fears and experiences and dreams; there’s no way I could have read this and been left untouched. It’s one of those rare books that inspired me in ways that few other books have accomplished, rekindling embers and making me believe that yes, there is hope for my dreams, and this book shows it. It will appeal to the artist, it will appeal to those who love dark fantasy, and it will appeal to those looking for something a bit different in their reading. This isn’t your average fairy tale. The fairies here have teeth, will cheerfully hurt you, and you’ll turn the page and let them do it again because you know that the further you go, the more you read, the better it will be in the end.
(Received from the publisher for review.)