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