What would you sacrifice for your art? How much would you give up to be the very best? How much does one’s identity as an artist comes from innate talent versus the act of creation? Can an artist create art separate from their past experiences? Can an artist ever surpass their past?
These are the questions Roses and Rot asks of its readers and that protagonist Imogen, her sister Marin, and their fellow artists ask of themselves.
Sisters Imogen and Marin are talented artists, a writer and a ballet dancer, who have both been accepted into a prestigious, year-long artist’s residency held at Melete. Past attendees of Melete have all enjoyed flourishing careers, for which they have credited Melete for their almost-magical success. Imogen and Marin see Melete as a chance not only to launch their careers, but to reconnect after being estranged for years.
Growing up with their horrifically abusive mother, elder sister Imogen escaped by attending a faraway boarding school, with Marin left to Mommy Dearest’s tender mercies. Their mother had always devoted herself to Marin’s dancing talent, glorifying in her daughter’s stardom as her own, while castigating Marin as an ungrateful child whose writing threatened to expose their family reality.
Reunited with Marin at Melete, Imogen wants nothing more but to devote herself to her new short story collection of fairy tale retellings and spend time with her sister. But all is not as it seems at Melete—the artist’s residency lies on the border of Faerie, and for years the Fae have exacted a tithe of the artists living there. Every seven years the artist deemed to have the greatest talent, the one who produces the most astounding piece of art at the end of the year, must live in Faerie for the next seven years. For their service they are rewarded with artistic success and fame and fortune beyond their dreams. Their names will live forever.
Imogen and Marin both have a chance at being chosen for the tithe. For each of them it represents the hope of a lifetime—not just guaranteed success after years of toiling away to be the best, but safety and security to get rid of Mommy Dearest’s ensnaring claws for good. But the Fae’s bargains always come with a price that not everyone can survive. In order to save her sister, Imogen will have to compete against her for the tithe to save her. Can their nascent relationship survive? And can Imogen find a way for the two of them to escape their pasts and set themselves free?
Oh my god oh my god oh my god this book is feelings. Roses and Rot is feelings and sisters and fairytales and Fae and love and art and beauty and inspiration and cruelty and death—it is all of these spun into a beautiful, evocative, heartbreaking story that gets to the heart of what it is to be an artist and fight to create your vision, find your inspiration, tell your story, and to feel powerful love for your art and your sister and have it be one and the same.
Anyone who calls themselves an artist or who has ever spent time toiling in the creative arts will feel at home within Roses and Rot. Kat Howard combines the ostensibly magical, unfathomable practice of creating evocative, meaningful art with the typical, mundane concerns almost every artist experiences—self-doubt, imposter syndrome, fear of failure and of never rising above obscurity, guilt over what one has or hasn’t sacrificed for their art—and spins them together to create a world where art is magic, but magic, like art (or vice versa) is only as powerful as the abilities of the creator. Submitting fully to art, and to success, requires sacrificing everything at its altar. But then what about all that which inspires art? Family, friends, lovers, memories and scars of the past, hopes and dreams of the future? If these are the stuff of inspiration and the locus of all great art, what does it mean to give that up in favor of eternal glory?
Roses and Rot operates as a fairy tale on three levels. The first is that of the actual Fae and their demanded tithe out of Melete’s artists. They are the real story for Melete’s success and that of its artists, and their touch and promises are as dangerous as they are powerful. The second is that of Imogen and Marin’s own lives. Mommy Dearest feeds on her daughter Marin’s talent as much as the Fae feed on their tithes as part of their destructive, symbiotic relationship. Because Imogen’s talent offers no glory for Mommy Dearest and full potential for exposure, Mommy Dearest forgoes parasitic investment with Imogen in favor of outright degradation and humiliation. As a writer, Imogen copes with her abusive upbringing by juxtaposing her life with that of fairytales. The stories she writes while at Melete are retellings of the truth, cast in the pretty language and recognizable tropes and narratives of sisters and mothers and stepmothers and rewards and punishments.
The third level is that of “Tam Lin,” the actual fairy tale Roses and Rot takes as its inspiration. Roses and Rot is simultaneously a retelling and revision: the original Janet and Tam Lin are present, if altered. Here, Janet followed Tam Lin into Faerie and bore a daughter named Helena, who’s a good but not great artist, and who breaks herself trying to fulfill her Janet’s expectations. An eerie triangle forms between Janet, Imogen and Marin’s Mommy Dearest, and the Fae themselves—all of who value art and artistic talent for what it does for them, and who use artists or their children—in the case of Janet and Mommy Dearest, because they are their children— as vessels for their own power and self-worth. In the hands of Imogen, art becomes more than its outcome—it becomes a matter of agency, to break the chains of fealty and abuse that bind herself and her sister to the Fae, and to their mother.
Roses and Rot is also a story of voice—inescapably so, since the value of art lies in what stories or emotions an artist imbues their art with and what stories or emotions an audience takes away. Art is voice, and it is a terrible thing to be forbidden from using it or to have it stolen away. One of the lovely things about this book is the way it subverts the historic use of fairytales as cautionary tales against the unknown and natural order of things and transforms them into acts of defiance against all those who silence voice, be they human or Fae, to tell the tale that will remain otherwise hidden under more believable, comforting lies.
Imogen and Marin—their sisterhood and shared artistic bond and love for each other is what truly makes Roses and Rot shine. This book would not have nearly the same impact, wouldn’t wrench quite as many emotions, if Imogen didn’t know Marin as well as she knew herself, if she didn’t understand the sacrifices Marin’s made for her art as well as she does her own, and if both of them didn’t see in each other all the ways their mother’s abuse has affected them and their lives.
Fundamental differences do plague their attempts to understand each other, again stemming from their childhoods and the subtly different relationships they each had with their mother. Whereas Mommy Dearest openly abused Imogen and destroyed her writing, she openly favored Marin for her dancing prowess and warned Marin that Imogen was always going to be jealous of her for being more talented and beautiful. Both of them suffered tremendously growing up and have the emotional and (in Imogen’s case) physical scars to show for it, but the seeds of doubt Mommy Dearest planted are still there. Imogen’s decision to compete against Marin and throw into danger their newly kindled relationship would not be as agonizing if the two of them didn’t want the to be the Fae’s tithe for the same reason—to save each other from their mother—and if their opposition towards each other didn’t have its roots all the way back to Mommy Dearest’s poisoned words.
Roses and Rot is what I would call a modern fairy tale, in the true sense of the word “modern.” The story doesn’t just take place in the present time, and nor is “Tam Lin” simply updated and slightly altered to better fit with modern relationships. This version of “Tam Lin” works because it is fully informed by the modern world of art and modern, working artists, and “Tam Lin” informs Imogen and Marin’s stories and relationship to art in return. Imogen and Marin and their housemates, the lovely, witty Arielle and the bad-tempered, antisocial and deeply insecure Helena, are all part of a brand-new fairy tale, one that’s going to be retold and passed down just like the ones Imogen takes her inspiration from in her short stories.
I loved Roses and Rot—I loved it so much, and it’s been almost two months since I’ve read it and I love it still. Kat Howard’s writing is a joy to read—clever, easy, imaginative, and a wonderful bridge between the ordinary and the magical as the book itself. Roses and Rot feels real, and it feels like a fairytale, and it feels like a real fairytale. Please please please do yourselves a favor and read it and have as many feelings as I did.