Book Review: Rosewater by Tade Thompson
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of The Wormwood Trilogy
Publisher: Orbit (September 18, 2018)
Length: 432 pages
Rosewater was weird, but in the best way possible. And that’s not something I can say about a lot of books, given my low weirdness tolerance. However, this was an instance where I was glad I kept an open mind, because while the story and I may have started out on shaky ground, it eventually expanded and developed into something strangely wonderful and compelling.
The book opens with our protagonist, Kaaro, arriving to work at the secret government facility known only as Section 45. The year is 2066, and the world has seen dramatic changes since the arrival of an alien lifeform which has settled itself near right outside of Lagos, Nigeria, where most of this story takes place. There, the alien presence has taken the form of a biodome, giving rise to Rosewater, the name of the community that has sprung up around its edges. Every so often, the dome would also split apart, releasing a mysterious substance rumored to have strong healing powers. As a result, Rosewater has become a destination for some of the world’s most hungry, sick, and desperate.
Kaaro himself has been changed by the biodome. He is among a group of individuals “infected” by the alien presence when it first arrived, which has granted them these uncanny telepathic abilities. Called sensitives, they share a special connection with the living dome, allowing them to pick up on thoughts and other signals to glean information and knowledge. When Kaaro first discovered he was a sensitive, he used his newfound powers to steal, but now he has joined many others like him, coerced by Section 45 to work for them as an interrogator to extract information from prisoners. But something odd has been happening lately. Visions of a woman with butterfly wings inside the biodome keep appearing to Kaaro, and soon many of his fellow sensitives are getting sick and dying. Is this a targeted attack on those like him, or something else? And will he be next?
I won’t deny this was a story that took a long time to take shape and gain traction. There’s a lot of world-building to establish, not to mention a lot jumping around in the timeline—something I admittedly struggle with when I encounter non-linear storytelling. And I would say Rosewater did take a while to generate interest, but once it dug its hooks into me, I was sold. Around the time Kaaro was informed of the many other sensitives like him dying under mysterious circumstances, the mystery plot came into the forefront and became the most important element of the book. At this point I finally felt like I was in my element, that there were tangible conflicts to which I could latch onto and focus my attentions.
That said, I also don’t want to give the wrong impression of this book. Yes, it is strange, and there are many moving parts, with the story taking a long rambling route to where it wants to be. Despite this though, Rosewater is very readable and accessible, even if it did require a fair bit of investment on my part. It is almost overwhelming in places, due to the sheer amount of information one must take in, from reanimates to secret portals and angel-like extraterrestrials. Suffice to say, we would be here all day if I were to detail all of the crazy inventive stuff I found in this novel, because pretty much everything was just so damn cool.
And to be honest, Rosewater only started to grow on me once all these ideas had their chance to settle. It wasn’t until much later that it occurred to me, this novel that I held in my hands was much more than a sci-fi mystery. It is also a tale of alien first contact, but unlike any I’ve ever read before. Revolution simmers beneath the surface, in this future version of Africa where many of the rights and freedoms have still yet to reach the people. Nigeria has become a gathering place for much of the world’s disenfranchised, who have come to the biodome with hopes of salvation.
Now might also be a good time to point out this is not a very cheerful tale; it is set to the backdrop of a lot of unpleasantness and misery, and Kaaro is a character with whom readers might have a hard time connecting. He fits the profile of a film noir protagonist in a lot of ways, namely being a socially estranged loner with a lot of existential angst—much of it not unwarranted, I might add. He has a complicated past, a result of coming into his powers at a young age. The rapport he has with coworkers and fellow sensitives also belies the fact he despises working for Section 45, though the details of his history with them isn’t revealed until much later. His experience with the alien lifeform, Rosewater, and his own powers are dominated by emotions of uncertainty, and it is this vulnerability that makes him feel so genuine to me. Such a complex portrayal of a multilayered, often contradictory protagonist is never easy, but I was really impressed by the work Tade Thompson has done.
So, if you are feeling brave, please think about giving Rosewater a chance. Personally, I am glad I did, despite my initial worries that it would be too weird or confusing for my tastes. Frankly, it is an rare and beautiful thing for a book to start off by filling me with doubt, only to turn around and sweep me off my feet, leaving me with a strong and lasting impression by the end. It’s a real treat, one I hope many others will be able to experience with this incredibly unique and thought-provoking novel.