Although Kat Howard has written plenty of short fiction (including a story nominated for the World Fantasy Award and others that have been selected for “best of” collections), Roses and Rot is her first published novel. This contemporary fantasy is a marvelous debut and my favorite 2016 release so far for its readability, exploration of art, and depiction of a complex bond between two sisters—intertwined with the magic of Faerie!

After Marin leaves home and an abusive mother to study at an elite school, she does not hear from her younger sister Imogen for four years. A few years after their reunion, Imogen decides to apply to Melete, a program in New Hampshire that provides housing, food, and full funding to especially gifted artists of all kinds for nine months, and convinces Marin to do the same in hopes that they can attend together. Both sisters are accepted: Marin for her writing and Imogen for her ballet dancing.

Although Marin has some reservations about Melete—it sounds far too perfect to be true—she decides she cannot miss the opportunity to work with her assigned mentor, who also happens to be her favorite living writer, and heads to New Hampshire to spend the next few months working on her most ambitious story yet. Other than one prickly housemate, Melete does initially seem every bit as wonderful as it sounded: the grounds are beautiful, Marin has a lovely tower room in the house she shares with her sister and two other women, and Marin’s mentor is understanding and supportive. However, Marin soon discovers she’s not just writing a fairy tale but also living in one when she learns the truth about Melete and its connection to Faerie. This forces Marin to face some tough choices that cause strain between her and Imogen: both sisters want the reward that can only belong to one residential artist, dredging up the competitive feelings their mother once used to drive a wedge between them.

Roses and Rot captured my attention from the very first page and never once lost it. The introduction to Marin and Imogen in the very first chapter drew me in, and the complexity of their relationship is expanded upon throughout the novel. The beginning shows two sisters who are close as they both navigate living with a horrible mother, and though Marin is relieved to be getting away from the situation, she also feels guilty for leaving her sister on her own. Later, it goes into more depth about the extent of the verbal and physical abuse heaped upon them both by their mother, showing how it shaped them and complicates their relationship. They have some unresolved issues and find it difficult to ignore some of the messages their mother ingrained in them in her attempts to divide them, although they also have a deep understanding stemming from this shared experience that can bring them together even when their bond is more fragile.

Although the sisters are given the most page time, the relationships in general (particularly those between women) are very well done. Marin develops an easy camaraderie with her housemate Ariel, and her conversations with her mentor Beth are also quite natural. All the rest of Marin’s household has a rocky relationship with their housemate Helena at the beginning, but this changes as they make an effort to include her and they eventually learn that there is an explanation for her behavior given her past. I did think that the romances paled in comparison to the other relationships; neither Marin nor Imogen seemed to have the same rapport with their love interests as they did with others in the novel. Since Imogen isn’t a point of view character, I wouldn’t necessarily expect to see the bond between her and Gavin clearly, but this is noticeable with Marin and Evan given that the story is told from Marin’s perspective.

In addition to the wonderfully developed friendships, I also loved the emphasis on both fairy tales and art. It examines the connection between art and artist and how artists’ creations grow with them as their experiences and perspectives influence what they create. Marin is also working on a story that grew out of her own past, and there are many discussions about art in general. Since there were so many conversations about art, these themes didn’t seem very subtle, but at the same time, this makes sense in context: in a colony of artists, it would seem out of place if they didn’t talk about art and the creative process.

The novel’s biggest weakness besides one weakly drawn relationship is its ending, which is rather abrupt and rushed. The main event it’s been leading up to occurs, and then the rest is wrapped up rather quickly in the final chapter. Given how compelling I found the novel, these are minor issues, though.

Roses and Rot is a stellar debut with a fitting title—it shows both the beauty and the ugliness, the light and the dark, as it traverses relationships, art, and fairy tales. In particular, it excels at relationships: a realistic, complex relationship between two sisters and that between creator and creation. It’s a wonderfully engaging story, and I’m looking forward to Kat Howard’s second novel.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from a publisher/publicist.

Read an Excerpt from Roses and Rot

May
13
2016

The May book selection, determined by the Patreon reward tier for voting on the monthly book poll, is a stand alone fantasy. The choices were as follows:

The book to be read and reviewed in May is…

The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson

The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson

Yoshifuji is a man fascinated by foxes, a man discontented and troubled by the meaning of life. A misstep at court forces him to retire to his long-deserted country estate, to rethink his plans and contemplate the next move that might return him to favor and guarantee his family’s prosperity.

Kitsune is a young fox who is fascinated by the large creatures that have suddenly invaded her world. She is drawn to them and to Yoshifuji. She comes to love him and will do anything to become a human woman to be with him.

Shikujo is Yoshifuji’s wife, ashamed of her husband, yet in love with him and uncertain of her role in his world. She is confused by his fascination with the creatures of the wood, and especially the foxes that she knows in her heart are harbingers of danger. She sees him slipping away and is determined to win him back from the wild … for all that she has her own fox-related secret.

Magic binds them all. And in the making (and breaking) of oaths and honors, the patterns of their lives will be changed forever.

The theme for the poll determining a book to read and review in June is Mythopoeic Award winners.

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

There are far too many books to cover since I last did one of these posts so this is going to be a condensed version with just a few of the highlights. I didn’t include a lot of books that do look interesting and narrowed it down a little further by not featuring ones that have been mentioned in the last month or ones that are currently on the to-review pile. I also didn’t look up excerpts or include a lot of information on them this time since there are still a lot of books!

In the last week, I posted one mini review of the first Shattered Realms book, Flamecaster by Cinda Williams Chima. This was one of my most anticipated 2016 releases since I loved the Seven Realms series, but I didn’t enjoy this one nearly as much since I didn’t really care about the main characters.

On to (a few of) the books!

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

This came out in paperback earlier this month. I’m really looking forward to it, both because the first few paragraphs were intriguing and because I recently read Nnedi Okorafor’s novella Binti and really enjoyed it!

 

A fiery spirit dances from the pages of the Great Book. She brings the aroma of scorched sand and ozone. She has a story to tell…. 

The Book of Phoenix is a unique work of magical futurism. A prequel to the highly acclaimed, World Fantasy Award-winning novel, Who Fears Death, it features the rise of another of Nnedi Okorafor’s powerful, memorable, superhuman women.

Phoenix was grown and raised among other genetic experiments in New York’s Tower 7. She is an “accelerated woman”—only two years old but with the body and mind of an adult, Phoenix’s abilities far exceed those of a normal human. Still innocent and inexperienced in the ways of the world, she is content living in her room speed reading e-books, running on her treadmill, and basking in the love of Saeed, another biologically altered human of Tower 7.

Then one evening, Saeed witnesses something so terrible that he takes his own life. Devastated by his death and Tower 7’s refusal to answer her questions, Phoenix finally begins to realize that her home is really her prison, and she becomes desperate to escape.

But Phoenix’s escape, and her destruction of Tower 7, is just the beginning of her story. Before her story ends, Phoenix will travel from the United States to Africa and back, changing the entire course of humanity’s future.

Children of Earth and Sky

Children of Earth and Sky by Guy Gavriel Kay

This comes out on Tuesday! In case you missed it, I posted an excerpt from Children of Earth and Sky toward the end of March, accompanied by a pretty animated version of the cover image.

 

The bestselling author of the groundbreaking novels Under Heaven and River of Stars, Guy Gavriel Kay is back with a new novel, Children of Earth and Sky, set in a world inspired by the conflicts and dramas of Renaissance Europe. Against this tumultuous backdrop the lives of men and women unfold on the borderlands—where empires and faiths collide.

From the small coastal town of Senjan, notorious for its pirates, a young woman sets out to find vengeance for her lost family. That same spring, from the wealthy city-state of Seressa, famous for its canals and lagoon, come two very different people: a young artist traveling to the dangerous east to paint the grand khalif at his request—and possibly to do more—and a fiercely intelligent, angry woman, posing as a doctor’s wife, but sent by Seressa as a spy.

The trading ship that carries them is commanded by the accomplished younger son of a merchant family, ambivalent about the life he’s been born to live. And farther east a boy trains to become a soldier in the elite infantry of the khalif—to win glory in the war everyone knows is coming.

As these lives entwine, their fates—and those of many others—will hang in the balance, when the khalif sends out his massive army to take the great fortress that is the gateway to the western world…

The Summer Dragon by Todd Lockwood

The Summer Dragon (The Evertide #1) by Todd Lockwood

This is a debut novel by illustrator Todd Lockwood (who did the gorgeous covers for Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent series). This hardcover book is also quite beautiful.

 

The debut novel from the acclaimed illustrator—a high fantasy adventure featuring dragons and deadly politics.

Maia and her family raise dragons for the political war machine. As she comes of age, she anticipates a dragon of her own to add to the stable of breeding parents. Her peaceful life is shattered when the Summer Dragon—one of the rare and mythical High Dragons—makes an appearance in her quiet valley. Political factions vie for control of the implied message, threatening her aspirations, her aerie, her entire way of life.

The bond between dragons and their riders is deep and life-long, and Maia’s desire for a dragon of her own to train, ride, fly, and love drives her to take a risk that puts her life at stake. She is swept into an adventure that pits her against the deathless Horrors, thralls of the enemy, and a faceless creature drawn from her fear. In her fight to preserve everything she knows and loves, she exposes a conspiracy, unearths an ancient civilization, and challenges her understanding of her world—and of herself.

Beyond the Woods edited by Paula Guran

Beyond the Woods: Fairy Tales Retold edited by Paula Guran

This upcoming anthology (July 2016) contains an impressive list of authors, including Peter S. Beagle, Tanith Lee, Neil Gaiman, Jane Yolen, Angela Slatter, Elizabeth Bear, Yoon Ha Lee, Nalo Hopkinson, Catherynne M. Valente, Charles de Lint, Ken Liu, and more.

 

Once upon a time, the stories that came to be known as “fairy tales” were cultivated to entertain adults more than children; it was only later that they were tamed and pruned into less thorny versions intended for youngsters. But in truth, they have continued to prick the imaginations of readers at all ages.

Over the years, authors have often borrowed bits and pieces from these stories, grafting them into their own writing, creating literature with both new meaning and age-old significance. In the last few decades or so, they’ve also intentionally retold and reinvented the tales in a variety of ways—delightful or dark, wistful or wicked, sweet or satirical—that forge new trails through the forests of fantastic fiction.

This new anthology compiles some of the best modern fairy-tale retellings and reinventions from award-winning and bestselling authors, acclaimed storytellers, and exciting new talents, into an enchanting collection. Explore magical new realms by traveling with us, Beyond the Woods . . .

The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier

The Keeper of the Mist by Rachel Neumeier

I tend to enjoy Rachel Neumeier’s books and I received her latest for my birthday last month.

 

Keri has been struggling to run her family bakery since her mother passed away. Now the father she barely knew—the Lord of Nimmira—has died, and ancient magic has decreed that she will take his place as the new Lady. The position has never been so dangerous: the mists that hide Nimmira from its vicious, land-hungry neighbors have failed, and Keri’s people are visible to strangers for the first time since the mists were put in place generations ago.

At the same time, three half-brothers with their own eyes on the crown make life within the House just as dangerous as the world outside. But Keri has three people to guide her: her mysterious Timekeeper, clever Bookkeeper, and steadfast Doorkeeper. Together they must find a way to repair the boundary before her neighbors realize just how vulnerable Nimmira is.

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi

The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi

I’ve been hearing this book is wonderful so I spent some of my birthday gift card on it.

 

Fate and fortune. Power and passion. What does it take to be the queen of a kingdom when you’re only seventeen?

Maya is cursed. With a horoscope that promises a marriage of death and destruction, she has earned only the scorn and fear of her father’s kingdom. Content to follow more scholarly pursuits, her whole world is torn apart when her father, the Raja, arranges a wedding of political convenience to quell outside rebellions. Soon Maya becomes the queen of Akaran and wife of Amar. Neither roles are what she expected: As Akaran’s queen, she finds her voice and power. As Amar’s wife, she finds something else entirely: Compassion. Protection. Desire…

But Akaran has its own secrets—thousands of locked doors, gardens of glass, and a tree that bears memories instead of fruit. Soon, Maya suspects her life is in danger. Yet who, besides her husband, can she trust? With the fate of the human and Otherworldly realms hanging in the balance, Maya must unravel an ancient mystery that spans reincarnated lives to save those she loves the most…including herself.

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

Six of Crows (Six of Crows #1) by Leigh Bardugo

This is another one I’ve heard great things about and bought with my gift card. It’s a really lovely hardcover; the outside edges of the pages are all black which looks great with the cover.

 

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can’t pull it off alone…

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can’t walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Kaz’s crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction—if they don’t kill each other first.

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh

The Wrath and the Dawn (The Wrath and the Dawn #1) by Renée Ahdieh

I’ve been wanting to read this one for awhile so it was another gift card purchase. It recently came out in paperback, and the second book was just released.

 

A sumptuous and epically told love story inspired by A Thousand and One Nights

Every dawn brings horror to a different family in a land ruled by a killer. Khalid, the eighteen-year-old Caliph of Khorasan, takes a new bride each night only to have her executed at sunrise. So it is a suspicious surprise when sixteen-year-old Shahrzad volunteers to marry Khalid. But she does so with a clever plan to stay alive and exact revenge on the Caliph for the murder of her best friend and countless other girls. Shazi’s wit and will, indeed, get her through to the dawn that no others have seen, but with a catch . . . she’s falling in love with the very boy who killed her dearest friend.

She discovers that the murderous boy-king is not all that he seems and neither are the deaths of so many girls. Shazi is determined to uncover the reason for the murders and to break the cycle once and for all.

Book Description:

Set in the world of the New York Times bestselling Seven Realms series, a generation later, this is a breathtaking story of dark magic, chilling threats, and two unforgettable characters walking a knife-sharp line between life and death. This dazzling beginning to a new series is indispensable for fans of Cinda Williams Chima and a perfect starting point for readers who are new to her work.

Adrian sul’Han, known as Ash, is a trained healer with a powerful gift of magic—and a thirst for revenge. Ash is forced into hiding after a series of murders throws the queendom into chaos. Now he’s closer than ever to killing the man responsible, the cruel king of Arden. With time running out, Ash faces an excruciating choice: Can he use his powers not to save a life but to take it?

Abandoned at birth, Jenna Bandelow was told that the magemark on the back of her neck would make her a target. But when the King’s Guard launches a relentless search for a girl with a mark like hers, Jenna assumes that it has more to do with her role as a saboteur than any birth-based curse. Though Jenna doesn’t know why she’s being hunted, she knows that she can’t get caught.

Eventually, Ash’s and Jenna’s paths will collide in Arden. Thrown together by chance and joined by their hatred of the ruthless king, they will come to rescue each other in ways they cannot yet imagine.

There are what some may consider spoilers for the Seven Realms quartet and a certain occurrence later in Flamecaster in the fourth paragraph of this review. My personal opinion is that the occurrences mentioned are too predictable to be spoilers, but I wanted to provide a warning for those who try to avoid spoilers at all costs! 

Cinda Williams Chima’s Seven Realms quartet (The Demon King, The Exiled Queen, The Gray Wolf Throne, The Crimson Crown) is one of my favorite young adult fantasy series. When I heard that there was going to be a new series about the next generation, I was thrilled, and the first book in the Shattered Realms series, Flamecaster, was one of my most anticipated releases this year.

Unfortunately, Flamecaster has the same major weakness as the first book in the Seven Realms series with none of its strengths. Like The Demon King, it took me a long time to become at all interested in the story, but it took me even longer to start finding Flamecaster readable—about half the book, which is over 500 pages long! It also didn’t manage to keep that interest once the book ended since it did not do what the previous series did so well: make me care about the characters. Han and Raisa were the main reason I enjoyed the Seven Realms books so much, and the main protagonists in Flamecaster were not nearly as memorable as the two who came before them.

Although there are four point of view characters, there are two I’d consider the main characters: the healer Ash, who seeks vengeance against a king, and the revolutionary Jenna, who is sought by the same king due to the mysterious magemark on her neck. It’s easy to sympathize with both of their situations since both of them have rough lives, but they were missing that spark that made Han and Raisa special. Ash and Jenna didn’t come alive as characters and neither of them underwent any major character development, and although I didn’t dislike them, I didn’t find either of them particularly compelling either.

Part of the appeal of the previous quartet was also Han and Raisa’s relationship: their interactions and seeing them fall for each other. The romance in Flamecaster happened quickly and without any chemistry between the characters involved. Of course, sometimes people do connect quickly, and in this particular case, there is a magical reason for the relationship to proceed so quickly from “just met” to “madly in love,” but skipping over the progression of the relationship and not showing the two getting to know one another is boring.

Although the second half was quite readable, I just didn’t care enough about the main characters to really enjoy it or give Flamecaster a second thought after I’d turned the final page, especially since the writing and plot were not particularly notable either. It’s possible I’ll give the second book a chance, but if so, it will be due to my fondness for the first quartet—not because of the first Shattered Realms book, which I found rather forgettable.

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from a publicist.

Women in SF&F Month Banner

April is now over, and so is the fifth annual Women in SF&F Month. THANK YOU so much to all of last month’s guests who made this year’s series possible with their great discussions and recommendations! My own wish list always grows even faster than usual during April.

Thank you to Renay for her work on the list of recommended science fiction and fantasy books by women that she started in 2013. We’ll be collecting submissions to add to it for a couple more days—if you haven’t already added some this year and would like to do so, you can add 10 of your favorite old or new SFF books by women read over the last year here. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to add some books and helped spread the word about it!

Thank you to my husband John for his help with graphics; he did all the weekly schedule graphics (and any older graphics related to this month, just like he designed this website!).

Thank you to the those who read and helped spread the word about the articles.

Since Sundays throughout April have been included summaries of the last week, here’s what happened then in case you missed anything:

If you missed any of the 2016 articles, all of this year’s guest posts can be found here.

It’s been an extremely busy month so I’ll probably be taking at least a couple of days off from blogging before starting to catch up with the reviews I need to write—but I will be returning to reviews and features soon as well as announcing the stand alone fantasy book to be reviewed in May!

Bone and Jewel Creatures
by Elizabeth Bear
133pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 4.3/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.88/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.95/5
 

Elizabeth Bear’s novella Bone and Jewel Creatures is set in the same world as her Eternal Sky trilogy (Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, Steles of the Sky), though it focuses on a completely different set of characters, mainly the 96-year-old wizard Bijou. It was released before a prequel novella, Book of Iron, about the same protagonist during her adventuring days many years ago. Although it’s not absolutely necessary to do so, I am glad I read Book of Iron first since it provides more background on the characters involved in the central conflict (plus I loved it—here’s my Book of Iron review).

Bone and Jewel Creatures has a rather straightforward plot: Bijou discovers that something is awry in Messaline, the city of jackals, and works toward preventing the triumph of evil. One day while in the workshop in which she creates her wondrous creatures of bone and jewel, Bijou’s current project is interrupted by the arrival of Brazen the Enchanter. He has come in hopes that Bijou can save a feral child, unable to speak due to having lived in the wild without the company of other humans, with an infected hand. In order for the child to survive, Bijou must amputate the hand and she wastes no time proceeding with what must be done. As she’s examining the tainted limb after the surgery, Bijou finds a white rose petal embedded in it and knows it could only have come from the garden of the man she used to love, Kaulas the Necromancer—and realizes it’s probably not a coincidence that this child was put into her path.

After that, it seems to take a long time to come around to the inevitable conclusion, and I don’t really think this is a novella to read for the plot. It’s one to read to admire the imagination that went into Bijou’s menagerie of bone and jewel creatures, the beautiful writing, and the character perspectives. Both Bijou and Emeraude (the name Bijou eventually gives the child) stand out as quite different from other characters I’ve come across in the books I’ve read.

I loved that the story centered on a woman in her nineties and I loved Bijou as a character, just as I did in Book of Iron. She’s feeling her age—she’s arthritic and slower than she used to be—but she still constructs the titular bone and jewel creatures and “not one other alive could do [what she did]” (page 7). What Bijou does is a combination of art and magic. Her creations are each unique, put together from different types of bones and decorated with jewels, and animated. They fill her household and assist her with daily tasks; she trusts many of them, especially the first of them all that she’s had for about seventy years, Ambrosias. Bijou also has a sharp mind and is a compassionate, practical person. She doesn’t hesitate to take in and care for this stray child, and after the surgery, she sets aside the bones and creates a functional hand for Emeraude.

Emeraude also has a third person perspective told from the viewpoint of “the cub.” Having lived in the wilderness with a family of jackals, the child has learned to survive as they do and views the world as one of them. Although quick to learn, Emeraude is new to human customs and perceives humans as a separate group to which the cub does not belong, and it’s quite compelling to read events through this child’s eyes as one who has not had contact with humans before.

Though a quick read due to its short length, Bone and Jewel Creatures is also a slow moving read since it introduces a problem in the first chapter and doesn’t have much follow through until toward the end. However, it’s notable for other reasons: as usual with books penned by Elizabeth Bear, the writing is lovely, and it’s unique due to the characters it focuses upon and the creative array of creatures populating Bijou’s household.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: My husband got me a signed copy for Christmas.

This book is April’s selection from a poll on Patreon.