What would you be willing to sacrifice to be the best in your field? What would you give up to achieve artistic success beyond your wildest dreams? Those questions lie at the center of New Hampshire writer Kat Howard’s debut fantasy novel, “Roses and Rot.”

The novel is set at Melete, a prestigious artists’ retreat situated somewhere near Manchester and named for the muse of meditation. When estranged sisters Imogen and Marin arrive to begin their nine-month stay there, it marks the first time the young women have lived under the same roof in a decade. Marin is the younger sibling, a dancer ready to make the leap to the next level of excellence but fearing that a year away from performing in public will rob her career of its momentum. A writer obsessed with fairy tales and accustomed to working in solitude, Imogen is less conflicted about residing at Melete, even as she feels guilty for having abandoned her sister for 10 years to the abuse of their scheming mother.

Both women, however, quickly fall under the spell of the institution. Everything that might enhance a student’s creative spark or future career is provided, from meals to social excursions, as well as intimate guidance from world-renowned mentors. Imogen and Marin discover that Melete is literally a magical place, a gateway into Faerie and subject to the realm’s interest and influence. (Why Faerie, usually depicted as intersecting with England or Europe, has an outpost in southern New Hampshire is never really explained. Perhaps something to do with Brexit?)

The plot begins to take off once Imogen and Marin embrace their enchanted predicament. Awarded a charm that allows them to cross the bridge to Faerie and enjoy its pleasures on Halloween, the sisters revel in feeling special, their talents truly appreciated for the first time. Each takes a lover with connections to the Fae, and soon they find themselves in competition for a grander prize, one with a dangerous catch.

Given its cast of high-strung artists and their seemingly endless conversations about the rewards and pitfalls of creativity, “Roses and Rot” sometimes seems in danger of slopping over into preciousness, the characters concerned too deeply with ephemeral matters when anyone else in their situation might just knuckle down and get to work without complaint. But Howard keeps her fantastical story grounded in genuine emotion, and she does an excellent job of delineating the supporting cast, depicting their foibles with a keen eye and a nuanced ear.

There’s also a delicious darkness to the proceedings. Faerie glamour can’t hide the rivalries and lingering grudges that roil just beneath Melete’s veneer of untrammeled creativity. Imogen and Marin discover exactly how treacherous the Fae can be, even as they attempt to sort out their own tangle of human emotions.

In devising the conflict between the sisters, Howard may have miscalculated in one instance. One of the prime drivers of the plot, Imogen and Marin’s awful mother whose poisonous dependence continues to torment them, is kept off-stage for nearly the entire book. Even encountered only through her daughters’ descriptions, she’s a formidable presence, to the point where one can’t help but wish she would show up and wreak some chaos first-hand.

At one point, Imogen says of her mother, “Having a daughter who was a writer was a flashlight shone into corners that ought to be kept dark so that no one saw the monsters tucked away in them.” A visit from Mommy Dearest would not fit Howard’s tightly knit plot, but some readers may regret not being able to see the greatest of those monsters up close.

A nominee for the World Fantasy Award, Howard is noted for her short stories, but she proves more than capable of handling the intricacies of a novel. “Roses and Rot” ably captures the beauty and the ruinous nature of Faerie. It’s a smart and affecting meditation on art, magic and ambition.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at m[email protected] and on Twitter @mlberry.

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