Murder and fantasy are seldom mixed in thoroughly intriguing ways, but in Jessica S. Olson’s new novel, A FORGERY OF ROSES, a wonderful mix of gothic elements, fantasy, and mystery/thriller comes out on the pages. Here’s an excerpt from the book.
When ladyroses burn, they bleed.
“A symbol of life,” Mother used to say when we would bend over the smoke together.
But now, as I hold f lame to stem, as I watch hungry, glowing embers devour leaves and thorns, as f loral perfume curdles to ribbons of soot in my nose, I know she was wrong. For when the fire reaches the petals, they shrivel, curling as though in pain. And then they melt. Great fat rubies dribbling over my fingers and smattering into my bowl like gore.
Mother called it beautiful. But now that she and Father have gone, all I see is death.
Gritting my teeth, I tear my gaze from the slow trickle of red and try to steady the quake of my movements as I drop the scorched ladyrose stems into the trash bin and blow out my candle. Crossing to a pot of water I’ve got heating over the fire in the corner, I tip the bowl of ladyrose drippings in.
As soon as it hits the water, the rose blood fans out, a spiderweb of shimmering scarlet veins crawling through the pot until the whole thing clouds like it’s full of sparkling garnet dust. I dip a spoon into the mixture and stir. It bubbles, smokes, and blackens.
Closing my eyes, I breathe in the sharp, cloying scent. Mother used to come home every day smelling like this—her clothes, her hair, her skin. With my head thick in a fog of exhaustion, it’s easy to allow myself to imagine she’s here next to me, chatting happily about how mixing burnt umber with ultramarine blue makes a far superior black than the tube of flat paint many artists purchase at the store. “It creates a more eye-catching hue,” I can almost hear her say. “Make the shadows breathe, Myra.”
From across the studio, the piercing laugh of my employer, portrait artist Elsie Moore, breaks through my thoughts, and I sigh as the echo of Mother’s voice fades from my mind.
How long will it be before I forget what that sounded like?
Forcing away thoughts of Mother, I continue stirring the contents of my pot. Another few minutes, and it should be ready to remove from the heat, cover, and set in a cool place to coagulate. Three days hence, the bubbling charcoal syrup will thicken into a clear jellylike substance that I’ll then transfer into tubes to stock alongside Elsie’s paints, solvents, and brushes. Ladyrose gel. A painting medium I both revere and fear.
I toss the spoon into the sink and wrap a towel around the pot. Then I hoist it to the counter beneath the window to cool and drape a cloth over its top. Satisfied, I turn to my next task of the morning: a bouquet of dirty brushes waiting to be cleaned. As I unscrew the cap from a bottle of turpentine, I let my gaze wander to where Elsie’s putting the finishing touches on a portrait of Mrs. Ramos across the room. Cadmium bright paints, eye-catching phthalo hues, and quinacridone details swirl together like smoke on Elsie’s canvas. She holds her brushes with a steady hand, chattering animatedly to Mrs. Ramos without a care in the world.
What would it be like to paint so freely? To wield a brush without the threat of magic commandeering the portrait? To give in to the high of pure creation?
Painting used to be like that for me, back before my powers sparked to life a few years ago. In those days, there was no greater ecstasy than the promise of a blank canvas and a palette full of colors. Before magic, painting was magic.
The memory of it is enough to make me weep.
I press the bristles of a filbert brush against the coil at the bottom of the jar of turpentine to loosen the oils, but when Elsie gasps, I glance back up.
“No!” She presses a dramatic hand to her heart. “Wilburt Jr.? What does he have?”
Mrs. Ramos, sitting daintily on a settee in a pale pink dress, nods, her mouth twisted in a frown. “The papers don’t say. I think it could be pneumonia, though. It’s been going around this year. Mrs. Potsworth down the street passed away from a nasty case of it not last week!”
I frown. The only Wilburt Jr. they can possibly be talking about is the governor’s son. A tall, strikingly handsome boy around my age whom I’ve only ever glimpsed at Lalverton city events.
Pursing my lips, I set aside the turpentine and dunk the brushes into the sink. Soap bubbles in my palm as I work it through the bristles, and I stare absently out the window at the snow swirling in the street and the passersby kicking through muddy slush on the sidewalk. I fall into a rhythm, imagining I’m back at the flat my family used to live in downtown. Mother is at my side in front of the kitchen sink, scrubbing burnt sienna out from underneath her fingernails. Father bustles in through the door, arms laden with bowls of leftover soups from his restaurant. My little sister, Lucy, rushes at him, asking if her pet frog can have the lobster bisque. You know it’s his favorite, Pa!
“Myra?” Elsie says behind me, and I jump, dropping the brushes, which hit the bottom of the basin with a faint series of plinks.
“Ms. Moore!” I say, looking back to where she was chatting with Mrs. Ramos earlier. I catch sight of the curly haired woman tugging a coat over her dress as she heads out the door. “You scared me.”
Elsie chuckles, thunking down another cupful of dirty brushes. “An ox could sneak up on you, dear. You spend too much time in your head.” She turns her back to me and gestures at the buttons down her spine. “Help me off with my smock, please.”
I obey. Sweat glistens on the back of her neck, dampening the gray curls that have escaped her tight bun.
“I know it’s not my place to ask questions,” the old woman continues, patting at her hair, “but…are you sleeping? How’s Lucy?”
I paste on a neutral expression and slide the smock from Elsie’s shoulders. “The same.”
She sighs. “I do wish I could help.”
The words are like a backhanded blow. I wonder what Mother would think if she heard them. Whether Father would scoff in that indignant way of his at the blatant lie.
I stare at my feet to keep from glancing at the fat amethysts drooping from Elsie’s soft white earlobes, the glitter of half a dozen gold chains around her neck, or the bulbous gems on her gnarled fingers. Any one of those sold to a jeweler would fetch the money Lucy and I need, but three months ago when I came begging Elsie for the help she claims she wishes she could give me, she balked at the idea. Said it would do me no favors to hand me a reward I didn’t earn.
I knew before I even asked her that she would say no. If there’s anything life has taught me, it’s that I can’t count on anyone but my sister. We’re all each other has. And, in the past, that would have been enough. But with Lucy’s illness having taken a turn for the worse and our funds being too meager to afford the medical care she needs, Elsie’s patronizing words about “wishing she could help” make me want to scream.
“How was Mrs. Ramos?” I ask a bit too brightly as I fold the smock into a tidy little square and set it on a pile of linens I plan to wash tomorrow.
Elsie draws the back of her hand across her brow. “She’s doing well, I think. Her son is visiting this week.”
“Yes. He took her to see Governor Harris’s public address yesterday.” Her expression sours.
“And?” I ask, not sure if I want to hear any more.
“She said the governor went on for at least five minutes berating Lalverton citizens for buying paintings and thus making light of the Holy Artist’s divinity.” She huffs. “That man is never going to let it go, is he?”
I groan. “When is he going to remember he’s not a priest and that people’s worship is not actually his concern?”
“He also said allowing secular art to become such a thriving business is the reason so many painters have gone missing. He apparently thinks it’s a sign that the Artist is displeased.”
I hiss through my teeth.
Painters have been disappearing one by one over the past year, starting with my mother, and yet the governor—the man whose duty it is to protect Lalverton—has done nothing. No major investigations, no questions asked.
Because we are the scum of the earth to him. Worse, even.
It’s nothing I haven’t heard before. I used to be forced to stand by as pompous worshippers spit on my mother, accusing her of desecrating the Artist by painting for profit. I watched others cross the street when they passed Elsie’s studio, as though merely being in the presence of such heresy could taint their souls.
As the years have trickled by, though, the disdain seems to have eased up a bit. Only the most devout hold painters like Elsie and Mother in such contempt. The majority of people don’t seem to mind what we do, and in recent months, portraiture has become quite popular in Lalverton.
But anytime Governor Harris goes on one of his burn-all-the-studios-to-the-ground rampages, my heart sinks.
I want to be a painter, just like Mother was—is—but it seems that particular life will always come with a healthy measure of judgment and disgust.
Elsie drops her voice to a whisper. “My bet—and don’t you dare repeat this to a soul, dear—is that the governor is exterminating us one by one himself. Wiping us out like stink bugs under his boot.”
A jolt zaps through my body.
Elsie registers my expression. “I’m sorry,” she says quickly. “I should not have—”
“It’s fine,” I say, my voice a pitch too high as the image of my parents under Governor Harris’s boot, twitching like a pair of dead insects, makes my stomach churn.
“Besides—” Elsie flounders for words “—the fact that your father is among the missing is a testament to the fact that it’s not only painters, right?” She gives a nervous chuckle, as if such a statement should comfort me.
I stare at her.
The bell on the front door tinkles.
“Mr. Markleton!” Elsie almost shouts, diving across the room toward the short, balding merchant in the doorway in her hurry to get away from me. “Right on time, as usual!” Her voice fills the air with exaggerated cheeriness. “Come, come!” She weaves among easels stacked with paintings in varying stages of completion and directs Mr. Markleton to a cushy settee in front of one of the backdrops that line the far wall.
“Brought along this—I know how you love to keep up on the Lalverton gossip,” he says with a smile, offering Elsie a rolled-up newspaper.
“Oh, yes! I heard about Governor Harris’s son.” She nods at me to take the paper. “But I did want to read the story myself. Thank you for bringing it along.”
Mr. Markleton gives me a friendly wink as I carry the newspaper to the back table. Elsie’s careless words about the missing people, about my parents, echo ceaselessly in my head, and I try to catch my breath as a wave of nausea rolls through me.
Elsie means well, I know that. She’s always had a knack for speaking before she thinks.
And it’s not like I could ever forget my parents are missing anyway. My whole world unraveled when they vanished, and it’s only gotten harder the past few months as our bank accounts have emptied. We can scarcely afford food and rent, let alone the medical care Lucy needs now that her illness has worsened.
We had our whole lives planned out. I was to attend the Lalverton Conservatory for Music and the Arts when I turned eighteen next spring, just like Mother. I would graduate with highest marks, just like Mother. Then I would open my own studio, just like Mother did here with Elsie.
Lucy, who was only twelve when our parents disappeared, was already on track to be accepted into some of the most prestigious biology programs in the country. She planned to change the world with her discoveries. Improve the environment and save endangered animals.
But now, those plans are nothing more than dreams from another life. A memory of wishes that will never come true. I’ve spent the past several months painting portraits until dawn to build up a portfolio in hopes of securing one of the full-ride scholarships the conservatory offers, but…well. Thanks to my magic’s interference, my portfolio is meager at best. I have a better chance at winning a scholarship to the moon.
Maybe my dreams were foolish anyway. Keeping my power from being discovered in a place like the conservatory would have been difficult. I don’t know how Mother managed it.
Rubbing a fist over my aching eyes, I glance down at the newspaper in my hands. A black-and-white photograph of a square-jawed man smiles kindly back at me from the front page. Why do I recognize him?
I unfurl the paper and read the article.
The body of Frederick Bennett, who was reported missing eight years ago, was discovered in the cellar of Roderick Lowell’s home last week.
My fists tighten on the paper, crinkling it. Of course I know his face. Frederick Bennett’s somber eyes have stared out from missing-person posters all over the city since I was nine years old. Mother told me she knew him from the conservatory and always wondered if he was a Prodigy like her. When he disappeared, she said she hoped he hadn’t been kidnapped and coerced into using his magic for someone cruel and desperate.
With unease stinging in my gut, I read on.
Autopsy reports reveal that the cause of death was starvation, though many lacerations, bruises, and broken bones were observed. Extensive scarring on his back and arms was noted, as well.
Lowell, a prominent stockholder in Lalverton, has declined to respond to inquiries and is being held for questioning at the Lalverton Police Station.
A roaring fills my ears, and I stumble back several steps before sinking into Elsie’s chair.
The report doesn’t say the word “Prodigy,” but it doesn’t have to.
Prodigy magic, which flows through my body just as it did through Mother’s, gives an artist the ability to alter human and animal bodies with their paintings, and it is considered by the Church to be even more of an abomination than normal portrait work. According to scripture, my very existence is a defilement of the power of our god, the Great Artist. Prodigies like us have been persecuted by the pious and captured by the greedy since the dawn of time. My head is full of the stories Mother told from her history books, the ones in which entire nations banded together to force a Prodigy to do their bidding. Where the holy priests burned them at the stake to cleanse the world of what they believed to be sinful imitation of the Artist.
As centuries have passed, the number of Prodigies in the world has dwindled—though whether it’s because their genetic lines have been killed off or because the ones who have survived have kept their powers hidden like Mother, it’s hard to say. With men like Governor Harris in charge of regions across the world, men willing to falsify charges in order to get Prodigies locked up in the name of “purifying” their streets, there’s no telling how many of us are out there, hiding.
All I know is that someone found out what Mother was, and then she and Father vanished.
Just like Frederick Bennett.
A flicker of orange flashes in the corner of my eye from the front window, and I glance up from the paper. A small red-haired woman stands outside the studio entrance with a tiny white dog in a sparkling collar tucked under one arm. She nudges the door open, sending the bell above it tinkling once again. A swirl of snow twists into the room as she slips inside, and I stifle a gasp when I catch sight of her face.
Mrs. Adelia Harris, wife to the merciless governor set on destroying every art studio in town, meets my gaze with a cold, hard stare. I tighten my grip on the newspaper.
With her husband’s reelection campaign in full swing, her son in a sickbed, and her belief that portrait art is a sin of the vilest degree, what could she possibly want with us?
Elsie catches sight of her and leaps to her feet with a gasp, knocking over her stool, which clangs against the tile.
“Hello.” Mrs. Harris’s voice is quiet. Lethal. “I’d like to get a portrait done.”
Excerpted from A Forgery of Roses by Jessica S. Olson © 2022 by Jessica S. Olson, used with permission by Inkyard Press/HarperCollins.
About A FORGERY OF ROSES
On Sale: March 29, 2022 by Inkyard Press; 384 pages
From the author of Sing Me Forgotten comes a lush new fantasy novel with an art-based magic system, romance, and murder…
Myra has a gift many would kidnap, blackmail, and worse to control: she’s a portrait artist whose paintings alter people’s bodies. Guarding that secret is the only way to keep her younger sister safe now that their parents are gone. But one frigid night, the governor’s wife discovers the truth and threatens to expose Myra if she does not complete a special portrait that would resurrect the governor’s dead son.
Once she arrives at the legendary stone mansion, however, it becomes clear the boy’s death was no accident. A killer stalks these halls–one disturbingly obsessed with portrait magic. Desperate to get out of the manor as quickly as possible, Myra turns to the governor’s older son for help completing the painting before the secret she spent her life concealing makes her the killer’s next victim.
Find A FORGERY OF ROSES
Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Bookshop.org | Books-A-Million | Indie Bound | Apple Books | Google Play | Goodreads
About Jessica S. Olson
Jessica S. Olson claims New Hampshire as her home but has somehow found herself in Texas, where she spends most of her time singing praises to the inventor of the air conditioner. When she’s not hiding from the heat, she’s corralling her four wild—but adorable—children, dreaming up stories about kissing and murder and magic, and eating peanut butter by the spoonful straight from the jar. She earned a bachelor’s in English with minors in editing and French, which essentially means she spent all of her university time reading and eating French pastries. She is the author of Sing Me Forgotten (2021) and A Forgery of Roses (2022).
Find Jessica S. Olson