Sub Rosa by Amber Dawn (Arsenal Pulp Press)As soon as I read the back cover copy for Sub Rosa by Amber Dawn, I knew I wanted to read it. The themes and character setting sounded a bit like Lullabies for Little Criminals, which I really enjoyed.

In this stunning debut novel, Amber Dawn subverts and transgresses the classic hero’s quest adventure to create a dark post-feminist vision not for the faint of heart.

Sub Rosa‘s reluctant heroine is known as “Little,” a teenaged runaway unable to remember her real name; in her struggle to get by in the world, she stumbles upon an underground society of ghosts and magicians, missing girls and would-be johns: a place called Sub Rosa. Not long after she is initiated into this family of magical prostitutes, Little is called upon to lead Sub Rosa through a maze of feral darkness, both real and imagined―a calling burdened with grotesque enemies, strange allies, and memories from a foggy past.

Written with a kind of gasping urgency, Sub Rosa is a beautiful and gutsy allegory of our times, a fairy-tale-like fantasia imbued with a grave, unapologetic realness.

From the publisher, Arsenal Pulp Press

I really enjoyed how Amber Dawn was able to blur the lines of reality without it ever being unreal. I know that sounds contradictory, but whenever we were asked to believe something about Sub Rosa, or how things were in the Rosa, it was never too far out. Little’s initial skepticism and always honest narrative helped keep the story grounded too.

Amber Dawn was able to describe Sub Rosa in such a way that it made you want to be a part of this magical world. Instead of shady back alleys and pimps who slap girls around, the girls ruled the Rosa. While obviously being prostitutes, Little describes it best when she says how everyone worships a “Glory” (what they call the girls) because each one has a special magical talent. They are able to hook “live ones” (paying johns) and keep them coming back for more.

Sub Rosa explores character and setting more than being plot-driven, however. the story still keeps you hooked for the whole ride. Identity is a large theme and is handled really well with Little’s questionable background and obvious memory loss. I loved the descriptions and the picture Amber Dawn painted for us of the Rosa and the Glories. Just enough to satisfy, but always wanting something more — which (ironically) is how the live ones probably feel after visiting Sub Rosa.

Sub Rosa‘s allegories, imagery, themes, and subtle commentary will have me mulling over some ideas and issues for a while. I think that is the sign of a good book. I’ll definitely be recommending it to my sister (who just finished a degree in Sexual Health) and a number of other friends as it is well-written. Sub Rosa lived up to my expectations and I am so shocked that this is Amber Dawn’s debut novel — I can’t wait to read what she writes next.