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.

This past week brought one book by an excellent author, but first, here are some recent and upcoming posts.

Last week I reviewed the May Patreon book, The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson. It was beautifully written and interesting, but it also took forever to get to the main story and was tedious to read at times.

Tomorrow there will be a guest post about writing and futurism by Brenda Cooper.

Now for the recent arrivals!

Poisoned Blade by Kate Elliott

Poisoned Blade (Court of Fives #2) by Kate Elliott

Poisoned Blade, the sequel to Kate Elliott’s first young adult novel Court of Fives, will be released on August 16, 2016 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). Court of Fives (excerpt) was a 2015 NPR Best Book of the Year and a finalist for the Andre Norton Award. A prequel novella about Jessamy’s parents, Night Flower, was also released in ebook format late last year.

I loved Kate Elliott’s Spiritwalker trilogy and definitely want to read this series!


In this thrilling sequel to World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott’s captivating young adult debut, a girl immersed in high-stakes competition holds the fate of a kingdom in her hands.

Now a Challenger, Jessamy is moving up the ranks of the Fives–the complex athletic contest favored by the lowliest Commoners and the loftiest Patrons alike. Pitted against far more formidable adversaries, success is Jes’s only option, as her prize money is essential to keeping her hidden family alive. She leaps at the chance to tour the countryside and face more competitors, but then a fatal attack on her traveling party puts Jes at the center of the war that Lord Kalliarkos–the prince she still loves–is fighting against their country’s enemies. With a sinister overlord watching her every move and Kal’s life on the line, Jes must now become more than a Fives champion…. She must become a warrior.

Additional Book(s):


Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy award-winning writer Kij Johnson’s debut solo novel, The Fox Woman, was first published in the year 2000. It’s based on the traditional Japanese fairy tale about Kaya no Yoshifuji and incorporates the author’s research on Heian-era Japan and foxes. Though artfully written, I have mixed feelings about The Fox Woman, which is good story hindered by its slow pace.

The tale of The Fox Woman is told by alternating between the journals of three unhappy individuals: Kaya no Yoshifuji, his wife Shikujo, and an unnamed fox simply called Kitsune. After Kaya no Yoshifuji is left with no position at court following the New Year’s appointments, he and his family return to the country estate they left behind years ago—a move that upends all three main characters’ lives.

Shikujo fears foxes: they are evil in all the stories and she’s haunted by her own secret memories of one from their time living on the estate years ago. However, Kaya no Yoshifuji delights in them and spends time watching them, painting them, and writing poetry about them. When Shukijo notices her husband’s preoccupation with the foxes, she is alarmed; when her husband refuses to destroy the foxes that get into their storehouse as anyone else would, she is terrified.

Kaya no Yoshifuji’s fascination with the foxes is mutual: Kitsune has been watching him ever since the family returned and disrupted the lives of her own family, who had been living in the abandoned home. Kitsune longs for the human man so much that she learns to cry, and when she discovers there is fox magic that could make her a human woman, nothing will stop her quest to have Kaya no Yushifuji for her own.

The Fox Woman is a beautifully written book that’s a fairy tale complete with magic and Kami as well as a reflection on the human condition. Each of the three journals that comprise the novel contain elegant, graceful prose (and occasionally poetry although the humans tend to be better at it than Kitsune!), but each has a voice that fits the character. Kitsune’s journal is the least conventional; she hasn’t grown up with human social conventions and this shows in her narrative and her attempts (and failures) to understand being human.

Although Kitsune’s journal is often the most fun of the three, I thought Shikujo was the most interesting character. She tries to be a proper woman, but her appearance of perfection and lack of openness cause problems; likewise, her pillow book is the account that feels most distant and veiled by formality. Her tale is a journey of self-discovery, and she seemed the most changed by the end.

Kaya no Yoshifuji is the least interesting of the three characters, and I could not for the life of me understand why everyone kept falling in love with him. After he learns he has no position at court, he gives up, goes back to his country estate, and is miserable all the time. His narrative is filled with melancholy and pomposity as he wishes he could still live in the now and be excited by new experiences like his son. He doesn’t tear down the spiderweb in his room since the spider has been there longer than he and feels sorrow thinking of his son being “here in this spiderweb of circumstance” (pp. 34). The web and its inhabitant are mentioned frequently in his sections, as well as statements such as “being lost in the despair of adulthood” (pp. 38) and other gloomy thoughts on the meaninglessness of life.

Such a cheerful fellow, that Kaya no Yoshifuji.

Although these three perspectives are masterfully done and I appreciate the skill that went into giving them distinct personalities, sometimes these journals are a little too realistic in that they discuss minutiae only interesting to the one writing it. Early sections of the book mention repairs to the estate and Kaya no Yoshifuji going down a foxhole to find nothing, as well as other details that ring true as being part of one’s own writings but are not terribly interesting for others to read about. Kitsune doesn’t even become aware of the possibility of using fox magic to turn into a woman until about a third of the way through and most of the first half of the book is rather tedious.

Although the second half is far more engaging than the first, it is also occasionally bogged down by boring sections. I had very mixed feelings about the ending, which contains some lovely writing but also has a frustrating lack of closure. I suppose that makes sense since it’s more about the individuals and how they grew over the course of the novel than the plot, but although a lack of resolution doesn’t always bother me, it did in this particular case since it was so focused on these three and then left their fates up in the air!

The Fox Woman is a book that I appreciated more than enjoyed. Artistically, the prose is gorgeous with three narratives that suit the main characters supposedly writing them. Unfortunately, the journal structure can be a little too true to life, focusing on details that are not particularly exciting to read or overwrought, melodramatic reflections (in the case of Kaya no Yoshifuji). Although I found the overall story and the voices interesting, I can’t say it was a particularly entertaining novel; however, I’ll remember it at least a little fondly because at least it stood out as stylistically different.

My Rating: 6/10

Where I got my reading copy: It was on my wish list, and I received it as a Christmas gift.

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

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.

Last week brought two books that sound quite interesting, but first…

In case you missed it, I posted a review of Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis, an enjoyable historical fantasy set almost entirely within the Eszterháza Palace in Hungary in 1779, last week. It was a lot of fun to read!

I’m now working on a review of the May Patreon selection, The Fox Woman by Kij Johnson.

Now for this week’s books!

The Obelisk Gate by N. K. Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth #2) by N. K. Jemisin

The Obelisk Gate will be released on August 16 (trade paperback, ebook). Although I don’t see it listed yet, I assume there will also be an audiobook since there is an audiobook edition of the first book in the series, The Fifth Season.

N. K. Jemisin is one of my favorite authors, and Hugo and Nebula-nominated novel The Fifth Season is a brilliant, well-written, unique book (my review). It was one of my favorites read last year, and due to that, The Obelisk Gate is one of my most anticipated releases of this year.


The second novel in a new fantasy trilogy by Hugo, Nebula & World Fantasy Award nominated author N.K. Jemisin.


The season of endings grows darker as civilization fades into the long cold night. Alabaster Tenring – madman, world-crusher, savior – has returned with a mission: to train his successor, Essun, and thus seal the fate of the Stillness forever.

It continues with a lost daughter, found by the enemy.

It continues with the obelisks, and an ancient mystery converging on answers at last.

The Stillness is the wall which stands against the flow of tradition, the spark of hope long buried under the thickening ashfall. And it will not be broken.

From Under the Mountain by Cait Spivey

From Under the Mountain (Guerline Cycle #1) by Cait Spivey

From Under the Mountain was released earlier this year (trade paperback, ebook). An excerpt is on Goodreads (the “Preview” link below the cover).

I read some of the beginning and found the portion I read and Guerline quite intriguing.


As the second child of the Aridan imperial family, nineteen-year-old Guerline knows exactly what is expected of her: be unobtrusive, be compliant, and do not fall in love with her low-born companion, Eva. She has succeeded at only two of those.

But before her feelings for Eva can become a point of contention for the royal house, Guerline’s calm and narrow life is ripped away from her—in the course of a single night—and she is abruptly cast in the role of empress.

Faced with a council that aggressively fears the four witch clans charged with protecting Arido and believes they are, in fact, waging war against the humans, Guerline struggles to maintain order. As her control over the land crumbles, she learns that the war is rooted in a conflict much older than she realized—one centuries in the making, which is now crawling from under the mountain and into the light. With the fate of Arido hanging in the balance, Guerline must decide who to trust when even her closest councilors seem to have an agenda.

Darkly cinematic, From Under the Mountain pairs the sweeping landscape of epic fantasy with the personal journey of finding one’s voice in the world, posing the question: how do you define evil, when everything society tells you is a lie?

Masks and Shadows is the first published adult novel by Stephanie Burgis, author of the award-winning Kat, Incorrigible series. This historical fantasy, set almost entirely within the Eszterháza Palace in Hungary in 1779, is an enjoyable story with conspiracy, romance, and music—the latter of which Stephanie Burgis has firsthand experience with since she studied music history as a Fulbright Scholar and worked for an opera company.

Shortly after becoming a widow, Baroness Charlotte von Steinbeck is invited to visit Eszterháza Palace by her younger sister Sophie, a lady-in-waiting to the Princess Esterházy. She is delighted to accept Sophie’s invitation since she hasn’t seen her sister in twelve years and is also interested in hearing the work of Herr Haydn as a gifted musician herself. While the concerts are indeed heavenly, Eszterháza Palace isn’t at all what Charlotte expected…

Charlotte is shocked to discover that her sister’s title of “lady-in-waiting” is a sham: she’s actually living at the palace because she is publicly acknowledged as Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s mistress, even though each of them is married to other people. Although Charlotte disapproves, Sophie’s improper conduct soon becomes the least of her worries as strange occurrences alert her and another visitor, the renowned castrato Signor Morelli, to trouble brewing within the palace. A conspiracy fueled by dark magic is planned and it will have dire consequences for the audience of an anticipated opera event—and the House of Habsburg as a whole—if it succeeds.

Masks and Shadows is an entertaining book with a unique setting. Hungary in the late 1700s is not a time period I’ve encountered in fiction inspired by history before, and although I don’t have in-depth knowledge of the history, I thought the author did a wonderful job with showing a sense of time and place that worked with this story through small details and the characters’ attitudes. It’s a very readable book without a lot of infodumping or dense description, and in many ways this book with focus on music and opera reminded me of a performance itself. Masks and Shadows is divided into three acts with the first introducing a cast of characters who provide different pieces of the big picture. Almost immediately, it hints at danger within the palace, and this unease grows as it leads up to the big event toward the end. It’s also a very dialogue-heavy book, and there were occasionally some misunderstandings and situations that reminded me of those from Shakespeare.

Societal issues such as gender and class are woven into it as well. In addition to being a story about an evil conspiracy, it’s also largely about Charlotte’s struggle against the social mores that dictate how a baroness should behave. She’s a very proper lady, but she and the renowned singer Signor Carlo Morelli (who has his own struggles with the way people view him due to being a castrato) become attracted to each other—and as her sister lectures her, this is a disgraceful match that will make her a pariah if she chooses to pursue it.

Sophie exhibits the attitudes of the higher classes, and while this shows what Charlotte is expected to think and how difficult it must be at times for her to even contemplate other beliefs, she is a very frustrating character to read about. She seems extraordinarily oblivious when she does chastise Charlotte for her feelings or exclaim at the immorality of two singers running away together when she never so much as questions how her position affects her own husband or the Princess, whom she makes rather snide and unfair comments about. Sophie’s only redeeming qualities seem to be that she does seem to truly care for her sister and the Prince; she also doesn’t see any problems with stating that certain people are beneath her—when they’re standing right in front of her. Sophie doesn’t seem at all self aware, and though the two sisters seem to have been very close in the past due to their shared experience with a disapproving mother, I can’t help but feel Charlotte must be some sort of saint to deal with her eighteen years later.

Although I consider Charlotte the central main character, there are a lot of pages dedicated to various other characters, mainly:

  • Carlo Morelli, an incredible singer who rose to perform before princes (and is now starting to feel more jaded about the nobility than honored to be in their presence)
  • Anna, Charlotte’s maid who becomes a singer due to her beautiful voice
  • Franz, an actor who is manipulated into joining the conspiracy
  • Sophie’s husband Friedrich, who is also manipulated into being part of the big conspiracy

After Charlotte, my favorite character to follow was Anna. She’s always loved to sing, and after Carlo hears her voice, he recommends she fill an opening with the opera singers. It’s a dream come true but also a challenge since she is untrained, can’t read music, and does not know Italian. She is also incredibly brave and heroic and has a big role in the ending.

Though not a point of view character, the Princess is also wonderful. She mainly avoids the public, yet she always seems to know everything that is going on in the palace.

Despite being one of the more entertaining books I’ve read this year, Masks and Shadows did have some drawbacks that kept it from being one of my favorites I’ve read lately. It was a little difficult to get into in the beginning since it did jump back and forth between characters a lot, and the only one I was immediately interested in was Charlotte. Since it is a relatively short book focusing on quite a few characters, there’s not a lot of room for in-depth character development. Charlotte is probably the most developed of the bunch, and although they do have motivations and personal journeys, more time is dedicated to moving the plot along than exploring the people involved. Due to this, their actual personalities do not set them apart from others I’ve read about, even if does seem to fit with its performance-like structure. Lastly—and I want to make clear that this is not a criticism but a matter of personal taste since I think it takes immense skill to write a book as effortlessly readable as this one—the writing is not beautiful or extraordinary.

Once it gets past the beginning, Masks and Shadows is an engaging book, and I admire the author’s ability with weaving history, music, and societal issues into a compelling story. Although I did enjoy reading it very much, there wasn’t much that stood out about it that was different or notable other than a rarely used setting and the emphasis on music, however, and it didn’t have the depth of character development that appeals to me as a reader.

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the author/publisher.

Read an Excerpt

Other Reviews of Masks and Shadows:

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.

This week’s book post covers books that arrived in the last two weeks including a couple I couldn’t resist buying after reading what Memory wrote about them at In the Forest of Stories.

In case you missed it last week, I reviewed Kat Howard’s debut novel Roses and Rot. It was also released last week, and it’s my favorite 2016 release I’ve read so far. I’m currently working on a review of Stephanie Burgis’ enjoyable historical fantasy Masks and Shadows.

On to the books!

The Mountain of Kept Memory by Rachel Neumeier

The Mountain of Kept Memory by Rachel Neumeier

In the last one of these posts, I mentioned Rachel Neumeier’s recently released YA fantasy The Keeper of the Mists, which was on my most anticipated books of 2016 list. At the time, I didn’t realize she also had an adult fantasy book coming out later this year or this would have been on that list as well! It sounds great and the cover is gorgeous, plus I tend to enjoy Rachel Neumeier’s books (especially House of Shadows!).

The Mountain of Kept Memory will be released in November (hardcover, ebook). The book’s page on the author’s website has several formats for reading an extract; the PDF excerpt is here.


In this gorgeous fantasy in the spirit of Guy Gavriel Kay and Robin McKinley, a prince and a princess must work together to save their kingdom from outside invaders…and dangers within.

Long ago the Kieba, last goddess in the world, raised up her mountain in the drylands of Carastind. Ever since then she has dwelled and protected the world from unending plagues and danger…

Gulien Madalin, heir to the throne of Carastind, finds himself more interested in ancient history than the tedious business of government and watching his father rule. But Gulien suspects that his father has offended the Kieba so seriously that she has withdrawn her protection from the kingdom. Worse, he fears that Carastind’s enemies suspect this as well.

Then he learns that he is right. And invasion is imminent.

Meanwhile Gulien’s sister Oressa has focused on what’s important: avoiding the attention of her royal father while keeping track of all the secrets at court. But when she overhears news about the threatened invasion, she’s shocked to discover what her father plans to give away in order to buy peace.

But Carastind’s enemies will not agree to peace at any price. They intend to not only conquer the kingdom, but also cast down the Kieba and steal her power. Now, Gulien and Oressa must decide where their most important loyalties lie, and what price they are willing to pay to protect the Kieba, their home, and the world.

The Empress Game by Rhonda Mason

The Empress Game (The Empress Game Trilogy #1) by Rhonda Mason

Memory from In the Forest of Stories wrote about how much fun this was last weekend. After reading what she had to say about it, I immediately went to add it to my wish list, and uh, kind of ended up ordering it instead… It was less than $4 at the time and I still have gift card money so I couldn’t resist!


One seat on the intergalactic Sakien Empire’s supreme ruling body, the Council of Seven, remains unfilled, that of the Empress Apparent. The seat isn’t won by votes or marriage. It’s won in a tournament of ritualized combat in the ancient tradition. Now that tournament, the Empress Game, has been called and the females of the empire will stop at nothing to secure political domination for their homeworlds. Kayla Reinumon, a supreme fighter, is called by a mysterious stranger to battle it out in the arena.

The battle for political power isn’t contained by the tournament’s ring, however. The empire’s elite gather to forge, strengthen or betray alliances in a dance that will determine the fate of the empire for a generation. With the empire wracked by a rising nanovirus plague and stretched thin by an ill-advised planet-wide occupation of Ordoch in enemy territory, everything rests on the woman who rises to the top.

Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee

Zeroboxer by Fonda Lee

In that same blog post mentioned above, Memory also wrote about enjoying Zeroboxer. When I ended up ordering The Empress Game, I couldn’t resist buying that one too (I’d almost purchased it when I used some of my gift card last time).

Zeroboxer (excerpt) was nominated for the 2015 Andre Norton Award.


A Sci-Fi Thrill Ride Set in the Action-Packed Sports Arena of the Future

A rising star in the weightless combat sport of zeroboxing, Carr “the Raptor” Luka dreams of winning the championship title. Recognizing his talent, the Zero Gravity Fighting Association assigns Risha, an ambitious and beautiful Martian colonist, to be his brandhelm––a personal marketing strategist. It isn’t long before she’s made Carr into a popular celebrity and stolen his heart along the way.

As his fame grows, Carr becomes an inspirational hero on Earth, a once-great planet that’s fallen into the shadow of its more prosperous colonies. But when Carr discovers a far-reaching criminal scheme, he becomes the keeper of a devastating secret. Not only will his choices place everything he cares about in jeopardy, but they may also spill the violence from the sports arena into the solar system.

Age of Myth by Michael J. Sullivan

Age of Myth (The Legends of the First Empire #1) by Michael J. Sullivan

The first book in a new series set in the same world as the Riyria series will be released on June 28 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook).


Michael J. Sullivan’s trailblazing career began with the breakout success of his Riyria series: full-bodied, spellbinding fantasy adventures whose imaginative scope and sympathetic characters won a devoted readership. Now, Sullivan’s stunning hardcover debut, Age of Myth, inaugurates an original five-book series, and one of fantasy’s finest next-generation storytellers continues to break new ground.

Since time immemorial, humans have worshipped the gods they call Fhrey, truly a race apart: invincible in battle, masters of magic, and seemingly immortal. But when a god falls to a human blade, the balance of power between men and those they thought were gods changes forever. Now, only a few stand between humankind and annihilation: Raithe, reluctant to embrace his destiny as the God Killer, Suri, a young seer burdened by signs of impending doom, and Persephone, who must overcome personal tragedy to lead her people. The Age of Myth is over; the time of rebellion has begun.

The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume 1

The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume One edited by Neil Clarke

The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume One will be released on June 7 (paperback, ebook). It includes stories by many phenomenal authors including Nancy Kress, Aliette de Bodard, Ken Liu, Seanan McGuire, Alastair Reynolds, Yoon Ha Lee, and many more.


A biological plague begins infecting artificial intelligence; a natural-born Earth woman seeking asylum on another planet finds a human society far different from her own; a food blogger’s posts chronicle a nationwide medical outbreak; trapped in a matchmaking game, a couple tries to escape from the only world they know; a janitor risks everything to rescue a “defective” tank-born baby he can raise as his own.

For decades, science fiction has compelled us to imagine futures both inspiring and cautionary. Whether it’s a warning message from a survey ship, a harrowing journey to a new world, or the adventures of well-meaning AI, science fiction feeds the imagination and delivers a lens through which we can better understand ourselves and the world around us. With The Best Science Fiction of the Year Volume One, award-winning editor Neil Clarke provides a year-in-review and thirty-one of the best stories published by both new and established authors in 2015.

Myth-Fits by Jody Lynn Nye

Myth-Fits (Myth Adventures) by Jody Lynn Nye

The latest Myth Adventures book will be released on June 7 (paperback, ebook, audiobook).


Robert Asprin’s “excellent, lighthearted fantasy series” (Epic Illustrated) continues with more antics from magician Skeeve and his eclectic team at M.Y.T.H., Inc.

Business is slow for M.Y.T.H., Inc., and its president, Bunny, is getting nervous that the company might not meet its quarterly goal. So when a job comes in that’s worth an absurd amount of gold—and also happens to take them to Winslow, the most luxurious vacation resort in any dimension—the team jumps at the opportunity to recoup some cash and maybe catch some R&R.

Only, magician Skeeve has an unsettling feeling that this mission might be trickier than it seems. Someone in Winslow is messing with the magic lines and working hard to ensure that the M.Y.T.H. crew gets nowhere near the powerful relic that they’ve been hired to find. And as the mysterious manipulation turns deadly, Skeeve, Bunny, Aahz, and the rest of their partners find themselves in a race not only to finish the job but also to escape paradise alive…

Additional Books:

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