Imogen and Marin are sisters with an awful mother, one who is abusive physically in part, but mostly mentally, trying to turn them against each other from a young age. At first opportunity Imogen, the older sister, leaves… and it’s many years before the sisters are reunited again. Marin understands why Imogen had to leave (mostly), but being left behind is hard even when you are the favourite. Marin is a dancing prodigy, and with her talent she’s the wicked greedy gleam in their mother’s eye, who doesn’t value Imogen’s talent for writing even slightly.
When they’re older they get in touch again, and are both accepted into a prestigious arts retreat known as Melete. Here they move in together along with two other artists (one a singer, one a poet) and from here they flourish in Melete’s calming grounds and strange ways. Soon they’re smitten with attractive men, learning buckets from their mentors (Marin in more ways than one as her mentor is also her love interest), and finally truly free from their mother… who still tries to contact them, but so much less now they’re further away.
Imogen, the writer, specialises in fairytales. Any and all kinds she can get her hands on. So this is what she writes and expands upon, and this is the nature the book starts to take in what she notices in the water and forest that surround the campus, and the strange things that happen at the night markets, and other things. And so on, until the impossible is revealed.
Neil Gaiman blurbs this book and reading it, you can see why. It has a slight hint of his kind of beautiful and terrifying, and in this novel Howard spins a tale that’s wonderful and believable and heart-breaking for how real it is – how terrible the mother is to the sisters, how hard the truth can be, how hard it is to be an artist who’s not quite good enough to succeed.
This is a wonderful novel that’s engaging, well written and just lovely. Easily going to remain one of my favourites for 2016.