Roses and Rot: Saga hardcover, 307 pages, May 2016, cover photo by Louise Heusinkveld. Roses and Rot was the debut novel by Kat Howard and was a Locus Award nominee for best first novel. Howard also has a World Fantasy Award nomination to her credit. Howard's second novel was An Unkindness of Magicians (2017), and she has a forthcoming collection of short fiction called A Cathedral of Myth and Bone.
Roses and Rot is set in a remote town in New Hampshire, home to an elite artists' retreat called Melete. Our main characters, twentysomething sisters Imogen and Marin, have both been accepted to spend a year there devoted to their art—Imogen is a writer, Marin a dancer. The girls grew up with an abusive mother, of whom Imogen seems especially resentful. Through 25 pages (actually, I read 33 pages—protests may be filed with the Fantastic Reviews home office in Sao Paulo, Brazil) we've met a couple of the other artists, one friendly and one very aloof, as well as Imogen's worldly adviser.
Hex: Tor hardcover, 380 pages, April 2016, cover photo from Getty Images, translated by Nancy Forest-Flier. Hex was also a Locus Award nominee, in the horror novel category. Thomas Olde Heuvelt is a Dutch author of five novels, but I believe Hex is the only one so far to be released in English. However, Heuvelt won a Hugo Award (for "The Day the World Turned Upside Down," which weathered the Sad Puppies debacle) and has been nominated for two others as well as for a World Fantasy Award for his short fiction published in English.
Hex is also set in a small New England town. This town, called Black Spring, has a very creepy resident. In the first chapter she visits the home of the Grant family, the narrative describing her as "a small shrunken woman, skinny as a rail and utterly motionless. She looked like something that didn't belong in the clear golden light of the afternoon: dark, dirty, nocturnal. Jocelyn had hung an old dishcloth over her head so you couldn't see her face." Later we learn that the woman's eyes and mouth are sewn shut. We also learn that this town has an organization called "HEX," devoted to keeping outsiders from attempting to move to Black Spring, using whatever form of manipulation or intimidation proves necessary. In an way, it's a kindness. It seems that once you move to Black Spring (as the Grants did), you quickly become unwillingly attached to the place, to the point of experiencing powerful thoughts of suicide if you try to stay away.
The Battle: As the luck of the draw would have it, this battle pits two dark fantasy novels each set in a sleepy New England village. Through 33 pages, both authors have started their books capably, introducing us to the setting and to some interesting characters. But we must pick one to advance, so how to distinguish between them?
In terms of the prose, I would give a slight edge to Roses and Rot. Kat Howard's descriptions of people and places are consistently concise but elegant, such as a rose garden depicted as "a ballet of thorns and velvet petals and cold, perfumed darkness."
Unfortunately, Howard has been slow to tell us what her story is actually going to be about. There are slight hints of supernatural elements—in the rose garden, for instance, Imogen spots a woman whose eyes appear all black, until the light shifts—but we have no idea yet how those will play into the story. So far, we just know that the story will involve two artistic sisters who resent their difficult mother.
In contrast, Hex grabbed my attention right from the opening, with its enigmatic ghost (I presume), who is mysterious, yet at the same time so familiar to the residents of Black Spring that they can have a family dinner with her in plain view. I'm also interested in the folks behind the "HEX" operation, which is distastefully coercive but actually seems to have people's best interests in mind.
While Roses and Rot has held back too much information through the opening for me to feel involved in the story, I am very interested in where the set-up of Hex is going to take us.
THE WINNER: Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt
Hex advances to the second round to face Black Creek by Gregory Lamberson.
To see the whole bracket, click here.