Book Review: Roses and Rot, Kat Howard

Book Review: Roses and Rot, Kat Howard

Fantasy: Roses and Rot, Kat Howard

Imogen and Marin are sisters. Both are also artists with some regard in their fields: Imogen as an author, Marin as a dancer. The Melete artists’ retreat is recruiting talent to come and spend most of a year in residence, working on their art with the help of a world-class mentor and the separation from the busyness of the world. What Melete doesn’t tell you up front is that it is run by the Fae, and there is an opportunity at the end of the residency, an opportunity to have all your dreams come true.


What price would you pay to make all your dreams come true? Would you give up seven years of your life?


Would you betray your sister?


Would you die?


Roses and Rot is a different kind of fairy tale, one which examines the price paid for getting your wishes fulfilled. These prices are different from person to person, and it is not always the person getting their dreams fulfilled who has to pay that price. Could a child recover if she were born in Fae country then had to leave? What cost do the Fae extract for their largesse? Is an artist solely judged by her art, or is she more than just an artist? And throughout the book, though not directly tied to the fairy tale, what role does a mother’s love or lack thereof play in a person’s life?


In this book, when a Fae makes flowers appear, two smells come with the flowers: roses and rot. Without delving into spoilers, the book makes the point again and again: blessings from the Fae come with beauty and wealth and magic, but they come at a high cost as well. Not everyone wants to pay that cost. Not everyone is able to pay that cost. And some people are desperate to pay the cost and receive the blessing, even if the Fae are unwilling to accept the bargain. That itself is a price for the Fae’s “gift,” but one paid by others.


Kat Howard is, in the words of Neal Gaiman, “a remarkable young writer.” Roses and Rot is her first novel, published in 2016. (We reviewed her second novel, An Unkindness of Magicians, last year.) I most certainly do not disagree with Neal Gaiman, nor do I think I could word praise any better than he does. Roses and Rot is a marvelous novel, particularly as a debut, and Kat Howard is indeed “a remarkable young writer.”

Book Review: Roses and Rot, Kat Howard

Book Review: An Unkindness of Magicians, Kat Howard

Book Review: An Unkindness of MagiciansKat Howard


Fantasy: An Unkindness of MagiciansKat Howard

What if magic were broken? In Kat Howard’s novel An Unkindness of Magicians, magicians from the major houses in New York are competing, sometimes to the death, to become the leaders of the Unseen. Magic and magicians exist largely unseen and unnoticed by the majority of the population. Very few non-magic people are even aware of the magic that surrounds them. Most who are aware are from magical families, but they themselves were born with little or no magical prowess, able to perform only parlor-trick type skills like lighting a candle. Magicians, though, carry extraordinary power. Periodically the time comes to hold a contest among the leading magical families for ascendancy. When that time coincides with a period when magic randomly does not work, you have the potential for a crisis–and for a very interesting novel.


Kat Howard has written numerous award-winning short stories, and her novella End of the Sentence (co-written with Maria Dahvana) was named a Best Book of 2014 by NPR. Her first book, Roses and Rot, was nominated for the Locus Award for Best First Novel. An Unkindness of Magicians is her second book, and was named a Best Book of 2017 by NPR.


Howard’s magical world is populated by the magical equivalent of “old money.” The leading families are patriarchal, dominated by white men who are unused to sharing power. Crashing into this world is Laurent, a dark-skinned magician from a non-magical family who has come up through the ranks with talent, intelligence, boldness, and will. He is ready to start and lead his own house, declaring he belongs at the table of power along with the older and established families. To compete, though, he needs a champion, a magician of extraordinary power who can represent his house in the magical duels and, if necessary, die for him. Sydney applies for the job with an extraordinary display of magic in the heart of New York City. She has come to New York from…well, nobody knows. She is a mystery, a mystery with exceptional talent. Laurent hires Sydney, and together they upend the tournament and the establishment.


Magic has always been reliable. Predictable. Controllable. But soon after the tournament starts, things begin to change. Even powerful magicians sometimes struggle with basic skills–candles won’t light. Other spells go completely out of control. An early tournament contest ends in a dueler’s death when the spell he cast surges in power and consumes him. For some of the established families, this is an opportunity to lay the blame at Sydney’s feet. She’s a newcomer. She broke the magic. Sydney knows it was not her. She suspects a much deeper and darker force at play, one that has been building in power for decades.


An Unkindness of Magicians is full of magic, but like many fantasy books warn, this magic has a price. How much would one pay to do magic? As the book progresses we see what the cost of magic is, and we see who is willing to pay that price. We also see who is willing to force others to pay the price for them. Sydney’s background is revealed, and we see what magic costs in her life and in the lives of others. We also see what the lust for magic does for those who are less willing to absorb that cost themselves.


Sydney is a strong protagonist, a magician with extraordinary talent and strength of character. She is also not alone in her quest to confront the challenges facing magic. She collects allies along the way, men and women who have also become concerned about the toll magic requires. I love the way Howard’s characters relate. In her fiction, just like life, strong women and strong men make each other stronger. By the end of the book, Sydney has gone from being a loner to being part of a team. I don’t know whether a sequel is planned for Sydney, but whether her future is written or just imagined, we can anticipate it being supported by her friends.


I enjoyed An Unkindness of Magicians, and look forward to future books from Kat Howard. An Unkindness of Magicians is indeed full of unkind magicians! But it also is full of strong characters, an interesting plot, and solid writing. Fantasy lovers (even mature teen readers) will enjoy this book.


Book Review: An Unkindness of MagiciansKat Howard