Roses and Rot by Kat Howard

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Rating 9.4/10
Definitely more rosy than rotten

Book of the Month

The Fae have been subjects for fiction for at least a thousand years, if not longer, though like vampires and wizards, the boom in urban fantasy literature has bought them into far greater prominence, with portrayals ranging from Eoin Colfer’s techno magical bond villains, to Laurel K Hamilton’s erotic detective stories. One of the unique things about Kat Howard however, is that her portrayal of the Fae is both very traditional and yet refreshingly new.

The book is told entirely from the perspective of writer Imogen, an aspiring author who told fairy tales as a way for both her, and her sister Marin to escape their childhood under a cruel and abusive mother. Both Marin, now a professional ballet dancer and Imogen have won fellowships to the Melete Academy, a retreat for aspiring artists of all types which provides everything from a personal mentor to a sympathetic community and a chance to practice art in piece. Truly it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, and past fellows have gone on to meteoric success in their fields. For Imogen, Melete also provides a chance to reconnect with the sister she loves, and perhaps break free from their mother’s influence both in the past and present.

The first and most major strength of Howard’s writing, and one which is evident right from the start is character. The cast here is extremely small (there are only eight named characters in the entire book), and for the most part they’re all confined to a secluded location, indeed in some ways Roses and Rot almost feels like a desert island story or small scale stage play, since from the straightforward, rock and opera singing Ariel to the driven, socially inept poet Helen, every character is a little more than they appear on the surface and exploration of their past, their art and their motivations makes up a large part of the book’s action.

I also appreciate that Howard respects her characters enough to let them have some degree of emotional intelligence, don’t expect any soap opera confrontations or sudden dramatic left field twists here, since all of the books character beats come from dramatically realistic interactions, indeed the ways that Howard depicts the after effects of abuse and the stunted, sociopathic games her mother played with both her and Marin has a gritty, realistic nastiness to it. It’s only after we have got to know the characters and set the stage for both them and their art that Howard lets Imogen discover the Fae.

In one sense here, the Fae are wonderfully traditional, seen in a sudden flight of birds or a bridge leading to nowhere, in shadows beneath the trees or out of the corner of the eye, an influence always felt and only occasionally glimpsed.

In another sense however, the Fae are frighteningly, worryingly real. Several characters have ties to Faerie, or turn out to be Fae themselves, and her Fae characters are no less three dimensional than any of the rest of the cast, indeed working out to what extent the realm and laws of Faerie itself influence the actions and feelings of the characters can be a matter for speculation, especially when you add in layers of characterisation, and misdirection. Yet, Faerie is more than just an unseen presence, and the few hints we get and tantalising notes of a dark tangled world out there on the other side of the looking glass are nothing short of intoxicating.

Another unique aspect to Howard’s depiction of Faerie, is that she doesn’t waste time either on Imogen’s disbelief, or on explaining how Faerie remains hidden in the modern world. There is no sense that Faerie is threatened, or that there is some ministry of magic out there keeping the muggles away. Faerie just is, alien, stark and uncompromising, indeed after so many fantasies that play on the idea that the fantastic has to hide from humanity, it’s refreshing to go back to the true Faerie tale, where the dark and tangled forest is just a short walk from the cottage door, and the fact that the cottage happens to be the 21st century world of auditions and trains and parties of wealthy art patrons matters not at all.

In her depiction of Faerie, Howard’s writing truly excelled, indeed it’s easy to see that Neil Gaiman was one of her mentors. Darkly poetic yet not overly indulgent with a fascinating rhythmic style. That being said, writing style provided one of the few issues in the book as Howard does seem to have an issue with consistency.

In her descriptions both of Faerie, and of Melete academy with its ever changing seasons and uniquely beautiful campus Howard shows a definite gift for poetry and description, however in other sections, often almost abruptly, her style changes to something stark and utilitarian. Of course one cannot use the same poetic tone when describing the day to day, sometimes amusing, sometimes poignant antics of a house full of obsessive artists in the same fashion as the ride of the wild hunt, however the changes were sometimes a little too jarring, especially when say a Fae character is suddenly described in an almost insultingly down to earth fashion.

Indeed, in general shifts in tone are one of the few respects in which Roses and Rot appears very much a first novel, since Howard almost abruptly drifts from stark, bald action, to dark poetry, to a philosophical musing by Imogen on concepts of faerie tales and questions of art.

These questions and discourses are as beautiful as the shadowy depictions of faerie itself, and I for one have a lot of sympathy with an author like Imogen who as much meditates upon the concepts of story and happiness as she writes them, nevertheless, as with blending poetry and everyday description, these musings aren’t always as integrated into the text as they might have been. Then again, the questions Imogen asks, in particular some of the central questions of the book such as how much would an artist be willing to give up for their art are genuinely fascinating, indeed as a person with artistic inclinations myself, asking some of the more difficult questions in this book was not always comfortable.

Speaking of art, on the one hand, the description of many other art forms is as beautiful as the descriptions of Faerie. Howard is able to capture the glory of sculpture, or the fluidly intoxicating motions of Marin’s dancing with a consummate ease leaves the reader in no doubt that she understands great art.

Unfortunately, the same is not true of Imogen and her writing of faerie tales. Often, the extracts of tales she tells are drafts or essays, and usually bound up with her own thoughts, indeed teasing out Imogen’s motivations behind any piece of her writing is an interesting literary exercise.

The problem however, is on those occasions Imogen is supposed to show the quality of her work, the dark faerie tales she exhibits as finished work are pretty much indistinguishable from the unfinished drafts.

Early on, she mentions writing stories of lost girls who endure abuse whose lives intersect with fantasy, and part of me wishes we got to hear those stories, since while Imogen’s faerie tales and writing let us understand her, sadly (unlike Howard), Imogen doesn’t actually show us that her writing is of the quality which Melete and indeed the Fae suggest it is. What is frustrating, is had Howard let Imogen draw on Howard’s ability for dark poetry, or give us glimpses into an entangled plot such as the one she mentioned, then we might have as much respect for Imogen as a writer, as for Howard.

On a writing style front, there is also no denying that the plot moves slowly. Partly this is due to the intensive focus on character interaction, though equally a few segments felt slightly aimless, for example one encounter Imogen has with unnamed malevolent Fae during a ball which leads to a truly terrifying experience, of course, to an extent Howard’s writing and aptitude for poetry is able to keep things interesting, even when the main thread of the plot seems to have slightly stalled, though, as with Imogen’s own writing, a little more might have helped. I also wasn’t always sure of Howard’s habit of essentially introducing an extra faerie rule every time the plot needed a kick into gear, since to some extent it felt a bit too obvious that the hand of the author was pushing characters where she wanted them.

In another sense however, making often literal deals with the devil is all part of the faerie ethos, especially in such an otherworldly incarnation of Faerie as Howard’s, and I would much rather have magic be a problem for characters rather than a solution; particularly a problem which lets us see what characters are truly made of, something which Tolkien was well aware of when he gave his magic ring the ability to corrupt with desire.

Slow though the action often felt, Howard’s gift for memorable dialogue, and for complex characters who reveal more about themselves often kept things interesting even when little else was going on. She also showed a distinct ability to take what appeared to be a predictable plot twist, and then radically change its emphasis.

For example, I was initially not pleased that Imogen meets a beautiful man and enjoys a rather torridly, if musically described night of passion fairly quickly, then (surprise surprise), finds that said beautiful man might not be the steadfast type. Yet, this being Howard, this proves far more than another example of a man who looks good on the outside but turns out to be no good on the inside, indeed I love the fact that Howard allows her characters to have flaws and yet not be defined by them, especially with the unguessable influence of Faerie thrumming away in the background.

Speaking of character flaws, Howard also manages something I wouldn’t have thought possible, creates a conflict based on that tired and most annoying of plot devices characters not speaking to each other; ostensibly for the other’s good, yet manages to actually make you feel sorry for the characters involved and understanding of the position they’re in. To say that usually when authors engage in this sort of conflict it makes me want to bang the respective characters heads together until they actually talk to each other, while in Howard I came off feeling sympathy for both of them, this is quite an achievement, doubly so since the actions one character takes are not what you might expect.

The book’s climax, slow though it is in coming, and to an extent dictated by the convoluted rules of faerie is also deeply satisfying due to Howard’s style. As Seanan McGuire did in An Artificial Night, Kat Howard borrows from the Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, however, scary though McGuire’s version of this scene was, Howard’s depiction rather trumps it for nasty realism, shadowy unpleasantness and even aftermath. Indeed, it’s interesting that McGuire’s version of Fae, with its political byplay and casual cruelty feels a far safer, or at least more easily understood place than Kat Howard’s.

Despite some issues with pacing, jarring style changes and Imogen’s writing, Roses and Rot is one of the best books I’ve read for a long time.

As I’ve said before in reviews, one of my personal ideals in speculative fiction is beauty in darkness. To take basic human characters, with all their flaws and foibles, throw them into an alien other world, and see how they cope. This is exactly what Kat Howard gives us in Roses and Rot, the story of two sisters, both survivors, both scarred, yet both trying to be more than they have been set against the dark seductions of Faerie, with romance, art, poetry and some very difficult questions along the way. Needless to say, this is a journey I truly enjoyed and I’ll definitely be looking forward to Howard’s next book.

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