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.
Warnings: parental abuse, mention of suicidal tendencies and self-harm
Roses and Rot is like a retelling of Tam Lin but removes the romantic angle and instead makes it about two sisters who shared an abusive childhood, grew apart and now are together in one place, and the way Melete affects and changes their relationship. Imogen and Marin had a mother who drove them hard, and abused them in different ways and the emotional damage from that carried forward in how they themselves push their own selves to be the best and get their freedom from her. Imogen had sought out distance the moment she got the opportunity, by getting into a boarding school, and Marin gets left behind. Now, a decade later they both have been accepted into a reclusive and prestigious artists’ commune called Melete, which is actually run by Faerie. The main focus of the story is slowly developing their fragile relationship and the way circumstances try to work against it.
The story shifts from the main story between the sisters and the story that Imogen is writing (she is a novel writer) and draws allusions between the two. Imogen’s story is about sisters escaping the clutches of metaphorical monsters and she frequently makes allusions to their terrible childhood in them – it is very personal to her, and the stress of putting it all to paper means she also has to relive it a little each time. Marin is an up-and-coming ballet dancer who wants to become a prima ballerina but is worried a year away will affect her career if she doesn’t come out of the program at the top of her game. There are other artists, too, who live along with them and around them, and they all share similar neuroses and imposter syndromes and the drive to be the best version of their art and everything. It is very relatable and forms a major part of the first half of the novel.
Your past came with you to your art whether you wanted it to or not. It haunted you. If you had a fraught past, it was the question you always considered, and always had asked of you—would you change it, if you could? Would you trade bad for good, or even for normal, knowing that if you did, the things that mattered to you now might disappear along with the evils of the past?
The second half goes into the faery aspects of the place and the magic of Melete. We get to know about a selection process called the Tithe, which is a sacrifice as the name suggests, but rewards the person with whatever they want after it is paid. This also sort of comes between them, because they both want to be the Tithe, and though Imogen loves her sister and feels bad about leaving her behind all those years ago, she does want to be the Tithe. The circumstances after her leaving led to their mother getting to drive a further wedge between them, and even though on the surface they both don’t talk about it, there are things simmering under the surface for both of them. Coupled with that, they are both getting into new romantic relationships and while those aren’t that crucial to the main story, there is also the fact that there is someone else taking their time. As Imogen gets to know further about the Tithe and the nature of Melete, she becomes worried about whether her sister would be able to survive if she (Marin) was chosen as the Tithe.
The book weaves it own magic with all the art, the passion artists show and the anxiety they face. It shows the beauty and the fear of doing something that means so much to you. The pacing is slow, but it doesn’t get boring – even when we are reading through ‘excerpts’ of Imogen’s novel, it feels like another story is building. The world of the novel also is very interesting – it blends Faerie in a secondary fantasy world kind of way, and the faeries are feeding off human emotions and playing with human feelings but they also have their own needs and wants from the human. Ultimately, though it is upto the humans what they are willing to give up for greatness – a theme that keeps coming up throughout the novel. What would you give to have everything you wanted for your life? If you could become amazing at your art, would it be worth it? Or does something become amazing because you have worked at being the best? It is both a story and a question put forth in sort of an essay form for us readers, and while I am not really a fan of the latter, I loved the overall atmosphere of the novel and how Howard brought out all these concepts in a retelling involving sisters.
“This is the thing about fairy tales: You have to live through them, before you get to happily ever after. That ever after has to be earned, and not everyone makes it that far.”
As for the ending, this one had a better satisfying ending than that of Howard’s other novel, An Unkindness of Magicians. It also provides a good enough resolution. In short, this is a fantastic read especially for those who like the dark side of fairytales and the exploration of those themes in a modern setting.
Note: Not a YA book but content suitable for teens