Book Review: Rosewater, by Tade Thompson

For this week’s review, I thought I would treat myself to a book off the physical TBR, as – in a shocking turn of events – I have somehow managed to get ahead of where I need to be with various upcoming releases! Tade Thompson’s Rosewater beckoned!

This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, and will help to support independent bookshops.

One of the first things that might strike you about this novel is that the blurb doesn’t really tell you much. In terms of actual plot detail, it gives you about twenty words and just throws you in there. As I read on, it became clear why.

To even attempt to succinctly discuss the ideas and storylines of Rosewater is an exercise in futility. There is just so much to go at, both from a world-building perspective and from a plot one. There is more imagination in one chapter of Rosewater than some novels manage across their entire length, yet somehow it never, ever feels overstuffed or cluttered. This doesn’t feel like someone throwing everything at the wall and seeing if it sticks; it feels like a whole world that has been meticulously constructed and well explained, with none of the exposition feeling dry or dull. There are small details that are almost throwaway that are really intriguing concepts, such as that which opens the novel – main character Kaaro is a sensitive, who uses the psychic abilities this grants him to maintain a kind of telepathy-powered firewall for a bank. He does this, with a number of other sensitives, by reading books in concert and flooding what’s known as the xenosphere with the information, deterring other sensitive hackers. And that’s just one tiny bit of the novel. It’s barely even important that he does it at all, in the grand scheme of things, yet it’s the sort of cool little detail that this novel is replete with.

The xenosphere, as a concept, deserves a paragraph all of its own, because it is just such a clever twist on classic cyberspace, as well as being integral to the plot. Alien contact has been made, in the form of a giant alien that made planetfall in the centre of London, and was given the name Wormwood. Its race, it emerges, has seeded Earth’s atmosphere with some kind of microscopic fungal spore, which unlocks a number of abilities for certain individuals – Kaaro among them. When he accesses the xenosphere itself, often to communicate with other sensitives for various reasons, it’s not through jacking in or donning a headset – it’s just right there, ready for him to close his eyes and sink into. Within the xenosphere, sensitives represent themselves to one another through avatars, shoring up their own mental defences with complicated mental mazes and the like – whilst it might feel similar to other ideas of cyberspace, the creativity that has gone into its conception is staggering.

Kaaro himself is a particularly gifted sensitive, but Thompson by and large eschews the “Chosen One” trope; Kaaro prefers to use his abilities for petty theft, before eventually being put to use as an unwilling asset of Section 45 – a covert arm of the Nigerian government. We see snapshots of Kaaro’s life as the chapters flit between the town of Rosewater in 2066 – the year in which current events are being played out – and other times in his complicated past. This partially non-linear approach to the narrative works extremely well, allowing us to see how the events of Kaaro’s past have shaped him into who he is – both for good and ill. It’s also a highly effective way of building tension, as there are several instances where Kaaro is in some kind of jeopardy at the end of one chapter, with the next then set in a different time period, meaning we have to wait until the chapter afterwards for the cliffhanger to be resolved. One more page becomes one more chapter regularly.

The idea of a singular hero and a manifest destiny just makes us all lazy. There is no destiny. There is choice, there is action, and any other narrative perpetuates a myth that someone else out there will fix our problems with a magic sword and a blessing from the gods.

Rosewater

My point about the difficulty in discussing all this succinctly is being borne out – I’m nearing the end of this review, and haven’t even mentioned the town of Rosewater itself yet. It’s built in a ring around some kind of alien dome in Nigeria, an impenetrable annex of our extra-terrestrial arrivals. How this dome came to be there is explored as things progress, as are its unusual effects on the town around it. Once a year, a small section of it opens, with those nearby cured of all sorts of illnesses, disabilities and deformities. Well, mostly. The dome is none too specific with exactly what it thinks needs to be healed or “enhanced,” leading to some interesting consequences for some individuals, as well as some pretty spooky ones for others. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t stop people flocking to the town in a colourful mass pilgrimage when the time for the dome to open approaches, offering themselves up to be healed by whatever unknown intelligence that resides within.

Eight hundred words and I feel like I’ve barely even begun to cover Rosewater. It’s a trove of original ideas and thrilling scenes, with an intricate and immersive plot. Even the smallest detail is a feat of imagination, with the sum total of them adding up to a debut that’s truly unique. Rosewater, book one of The Wormwood Trilogy, won the inaugural Nommo Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award. It’s published by Orbit, and you can buy your copy through this affiliate link. Books two and three are also out already.

Currently listening: From the Ground, Trepalium
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3 thoughts on “Book Review: Rosewater, by Tade Thompson

    1. Yeah, there’s a lot going on aside from the biodome part, and the stuff to do with that is also really interesting. Very cool ideas in this book!

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  1. […] Sure, it sounds great. Wondrous, even. Miraculous. A place where you can come and get any wound or disease healed or cured. But the mysterious, alien dome in the middle of the Nigerian town of Rosewater is somewhat indiscriminate with its gifts. You might be completely healed in the course of the dome’s annual opening. Or you might end up looking rather different, with the alien power behind it all determining that it’s actually some deformity that needs to be enhanced. How liveable Rosewater actually is will vary depending on what timeframe you visit in too, the town earning its name as an ironic reference to the foul smell associated with too many people and not enough plumbing. Yum. Even if you’re just a regular resident and living there during the 2066 setting of much of Rosewater, expect to contend with those that the dome heals back to some kind of life from beyond the grave. Morning commutes in the real world might be hell, but I’d prefer not to add the undead into the mix. You can read my review of the excellent Rosewater here. […]

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