Imogen and Marin didn't have a happy home life. Their mother pitted them against one another, criticizing their every move, and ensuring that they doubted everything they ever put their heart and soul into. But Imogen was lucky enough to escape by earning a spot in boarding school. Unfortunately it meant the sisters were separated at an early age.
All of that changes when they're both accepted into Melete, an exclusive artists' retreat that should help them both in their careers. Melete is an odd and magical place, both figuratively and, as Imogen and Marin soon learn, literally. Aided by the Fae, Melete fosters creativity, artistry, and passion. And every seven years, Melete pays tribute to its otherworldly benefactors by offering up one of their own. It's an honor beyond all honors and one that means magnificent success for the person chosen. But when Imogen and Marin are both selected as candidates, it could mean a break between the siblings that can never be healed.
I was pretty immediately enchanted by the world of Roses and Rot. Even before beginning the book, to be honest. The cover is exactly the kind that catches my eye and haunts me until I have the title in hand!
Imogen and Marin are both artists - Imogen is a writer whose focus is fairy tales, many of which are drawn from her own unhappy childhood, and Marin is a dancer. It's Marin's idea to apply to Melete, but both are lucky enough to get in and to be able to share living space while they're there.
The sisters have a bad background thanks to a mother who never seemed to be able to show any affection for either of them. Well, that's not totally true. She apparently showed affection for Marin when it meant hurting Imogen more. In the beginning of the story, though, there's a lot of allusion to their horrid mother with no examples to actually back it up. It made the balance of the story somewhat off kilter for me personally.
Of course the real conflict comes when the sisters both begin to gain the attention of the fae. Both want to succeed and both want to escape their mother's clutches once and for all. Melete offers both of those, temporarily at least, and once again pits the sisters against each other. Though not in the way you might immediately think.
Melete plays on a lot of the traditional Fae elements - there's a seasonal market akin to the night markets/goblin markets seen frequently in fairy worlds, there are rules galore (the fae are nothing if not sticklers for rules - and for finding ways to break them), and of course there are enchantments like the fact that folks at Melete can't actually tell outsiders the truth about the retreat. I do so love fae legend and seeing how different authors handle the topic. I wanted Roses and Rot to have a darker undertone and a more gothic feel (that cover!), though, and that simply wasn't the case. In truth it felt as though the nitty gritty of the world was never fully formed. Howard gave us glimpses of something that I wanted to see much more deeply into.
I also found myself inevitably comparing it to Borderline, which I read very recently and also concerns the fae/fey and their interactions with the "real" world. Unfair though it may be, Mishell Baker's snarky lead and Hollywood blend worked better for me in a lot of ways than Howard's artist retreat setting and emotionally embroiled siblings.
Which is not to say at all that I didn't enjoy Roses and Rot but simply that I a. had different expectations for Roses and b. should probably plan my reading more appropriately!