Sisters are tricky. For every pair that get along, it seems that there is another pair that have terminal sibling rivalry. (Although, I might have an exaggerated view of this because I read so much fiction.) But I tend to stay away from stories like this because they just don’t interest me all that much. There has to be something else to get my attention. So Kat Howard’s Roses and Rot slowly pulled me into its story of rivalrous* sisters with hints of magic before it really grabbed hold of me with a gripping tale about sacrifice.
Melete is a legendary artists’ retreat in the world of this novel. Artists, musicians, poets, novelists, etc. would give up a lot to be selected for Melete’s program because so many of its alumni have gone on to have huge success. In spite of this, Imogen is reluctant to apply. Her sister, Marin, twists her arm until they both apply and are accepted. Writer Imogen and dancer Marin haven’t seen each other for years (and we are given a lot of backstory to explain why), though they have a happy reunion when they meet up again at Melete. Together, they get make friends among the other accepted artists—as well as tolerate some of the odder residents.
Imogen hasn’t been at Melete long before she starts to see and hear strange things. She’s not the only one and the mentors at the retreat eventually reveal to the young artists what’s really going on. Without giving too much away, I can say that the artists are offered the chance at a Faustian bargain in return for guaranteed artistic success. In exchange for seven years’ service in Faerie, they will have all their artistic dreams come true. The price is terrible, but many of the mentees are more than willing to pay.
The artistic bargain, while interesting, is not what spurs the last third or so of the book. The relationship between Imogen and Marin is tested when they become frontrunners for the bargain. Even though the two are trying to repair their relationship with each other, the competition threatens to tear them apart again—perhaps forever. At the beginning of the novel, when the artists found out about the bargain, all but one** said they would take it without thinking twice. By the time the competition really heats up, Imogen finds a line she’s not willing to cross. But for Marin, the bargain is her only chance at the kind of life she wants.
I realize this summary leaves out a lot of the magic and mystery of the book, as well as Imogen’s haunting take on fairy tales, but I think these are best experienced by reading Roses and Rot oneself. Even though I had other things I really had to do this weekend, I could not put it down. I was hooked and enchanted by this novel. If you love retellings of fairy tales, sibling rivalries, or stories about artists, I would definitely suggest Roses and Rot for a great day’s reading.
* This is a real word. I looked it up and everything.
** One of my favorite secondary characters, a singer, is the lone holdout against the bargain. It may be because I’ve read too many Faustian tales where the bargainer regrets their decision, but I totally understand the singer’s point that taking the deal would be a kind of cheating. They will never know if they might have been able to be successful on their own—which I would find intolerable because this question opens the door to crippling doubt.