Roses and Rot by Kat Howard
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. There are stories where you must wear out your iron shoes to right a wrong, where children are baked into pies, where jealousy cuts off hands and cuts out hearts.
We forget, because the stories end with those ritual words – happily ever after – all the darkness, all the pain, all the effort that comes before.
Kat Howard’s Roses and Rot (2016) is a modern fairy tale about two sisters pursuing their art whilst trying to escape from their abusive past. It is also a love letter to the fairy story in all its incarnations. The book cheerfully draws from the Child Ballads – heavily incorporating elements of “Tam Lin” and “Thomas The Rhymer” – Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm, as well as tipping its hat to the classics with Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and other modern re-imaginers of the fairy tale such as Ellen Kushner, Pamela Dean and Neil Gaiman. It is a novel that acknowledges and celebrates the tropes of fairy tales, but also one that is keen to examine and deconstruct them. However at its heart it is a moving tale of sisterly love, family, and the sacrifices artists make for their art.
Imogen and Marin are sisters who looked out for each other whilst growing up with their physically and emotionally abusive mother. Imogen escaped through stories, and has become a writer, whilst Marin has escaped through her dancing. Both girls get accepted into Melete, an elite arts school with a glittering reputation. There they hope to study under leaders in their fields, grow closer together again, and finally escape the poisonous influence of their mother for good.
However, they soon find out that the success of Melete’s alumni has more to thank than just prestigious tutoring. The school is linked with Faerie, and the Fae will select one student to be the tithe. They will spend seven years in Faerie, their emotions feeding the Fae, and when they come back they will have success beyond their wildest dreams. Only one student will be able to go, and as the competition threatens to drive Imogen and Marin apart. Imogen discovers from Gavin, Marin’s lover and tutor and the Fairy king, that Marin may not survive her time in Faerie, and she must choose between supporting her sister’s dreams and saving her life.
Roses and Rot is a fantasy novel steeped in fairy tales. Fairy tales were the stories that helped Imogen escape the horrors of her childhood, they have shaped how she experiences the world, and they inform her writing. The nested fairy tales that punctuate Imogen’s narrative serve not just to point out how much Imogen understands the rules and rhythms of fairy tales, allowing her to recognise that she is in a fairy tale and to use that knowledge to her advantage, but also link her lived experiences, both the fantastical and the mundane, to the familiar fairy tales we all know and love.
Howard is showing us how, through the language of fancy and metaphor, fairy tales contain deeper truths that speak to our lives, which is why they have endured for so long. Imogen points out that fairy tales are remembered for their moments of wonder and their happy endings, but these are both things that have to be earned; they are balanced out by moments of horror and suffering. Fairy tales are powerful both because they acknowledge that monsters exist and that they can be defeated.
Imogen also points out that very few fairy tales actually contain fairies, and that most stories featuring the Fae are frightening and unsettling. Crucially for these types of stories, Howard gets her Fairies right. The Fae in Roses and Rot are not the twee winged creatures of so many more recent imaginings, but like their appearances in the Child Ballads and other forms of folklore. They are cruel, seductive, manipulative, inhuman and implacable. From their shape-shifting powers, their animal magnetism and their clawed and feathered appearances when their glamour drops, the Fae here are a strange and frightening presence, and Faerie is as terrifying as it is alluring – a place of hunger and yearning that threatens to swallow you whole. Howard uses them sparingly. The presence of the Fae suffuses the fringes of the world Imogen and Marin perceive, yet we rarely encounter them directly except for short intense bursts. This allows them to maintain their mystery and their wonder, even as they control all the events around them.
Howard clearly has an extensive knowledge of fairy tales, which she puts to use not just in Imogen’s writing but in illuminating the backstory and narrative roles of her characters. Roses and Rot has a number of well-developed and complex supporting characters, each of whom have their own stories, which are foreshadowed and implied by the fairy tales they are linked to. Ariel, Imogen and Miren’s flatmate, is a singer with an incredible voice hoping to record an ambitious rock opera while at Melete. Appropriately given her name, she is the person who discovers that the Fae have put a curse on all the students attending Melete, making them physically unable to talk about anything related to Melete’s connection with Faerie outside of the campus. Their other flatmate, Helena, is named after a Shakespeare reference rather than a Disney one, sharing a name with one of the mortals from A Midsummer Night’s Dream who Oberon falls for. This foreshadows the plan her manipulative mother has for her. Helena’s parents are Thomas and Janet, after the lovers from the Child Ballads “Thomas The Rhymer” and “Tam Lin” respectively, which hints at their stories and the nature of their romance.
However Roses and Rot is not content to merely pay tribute to fairy tales. Howard subverts as many tropes as she invokes. Imogen’s relationship with Evan, the dashingly handsome current tithe, for all its whirlwind romance is handled with stark, mature realism, and is far from a fairy tale romance. Imogen and Marin’s mother, and Janet, are not fairy tale stepmothers, yet their abuse is on a par with any wicked stepmother out of the Brothers Grimm.
Thomas is a smarmy cad, a flipped perspective on the loveable rogue Thomas the Rhymer is usually portrayed as before his journey to Faerie and far from the sad wise prophet who returns, yet despite this he shows more affection for Helena than Janet does, and, though he has no magical compulsion to, he is ultimately truthful. Thus, while the folklore the characters are built on inform their stories, they do not dictate their outcome, allowing them to remain fully fledged characters in their own right.
The story with the largest contribution to Roses and Rot’s DNA is “Tam Lin”. The original ballad tells the tale of a woman who falls in love with a man who has been captured by the Fae and will serve as Faerie’s tithe to Hell unless she can break the curse and rescue him with her love. The book’s biggest subversion is in its replacement of the relationship between Janet and Tam Lin with familial love between Imogen and Marin, as Imogen must face a similar series of tests to save her sister. It is refreshing to see the sisterly relationship explored, with more depth and emotion than anything since Disney’s Frozen. Imogen and Marin are both driven and ambitious, both have made sacrifices in their lives to serve their art. What once was a form of escape has become a way of life, something that defines them through good and ill, helps them understand the world as well as cope with it.
The environment of Melete puts them in competition with each other, even before Imogen must make the call between supporting her sister in what she does and saving her life. However, as the flashbacks to their childhood reveal, theirs is a lifelong bond forged from shared experiences, both good and bad, and it is this bond that gives them a chance to save each other both from the horrors of life with their abusive mother and the terrors of Faerie. The folklore it draws on may give the conclusion to Roses and Rot its shape, but it is the strength and believability of these characters and their relationship that gives it its emotional impact.