‘I calm down. I do not know where I am, but I am not afraid of being lost. I am a finder, and the most basic skill of a finder is getting home.’
Tade Thompson’s Rosewater is the first book in his Wormwood Trilogy. It is set in near-future Nigeria where an alien biodome has appeared. The aliens remain a mystery but once a year the biodome opens. When this happens, some kind of energy is released which is rumoured to contain healing properties. People come from far and wide to visit the biodome hoping they will experience some of its benefits. Rosewater is the name of the town which has slowly formed around the biodome.
Our guide to Rosewater is Kaaro. At the beginning of the story he is working for a bank. It is quickly revealed that Kaaro is gifted with extra-sensory abilities. He is labeled “a sensitive” and can read people to such an extent that he is able to find things they are hiding. Intrigued yet? To say more would be to reveal too much of the story so I will end my brief summary here.
Rosewater tells a fascinating story which is inventive and exciting. Occasionally it verges on the horrifying, too. The author has spoken of his love for the horror genre in interviews, so it is no surprise to find it in here. The book can be challenging at first because the plot frequently shifts between different time periods. The “present” is Nigeria in the year 2066 with Kaaro working at the bank. As the narrative progresses, we learn there is a lot more to Kaaro than first appears. The “past” shows us a younger Kaaro and fleshes out his story little by little.
This constant jumping around in time can be a bit confusing if you are not paying close attention. I found myself checking previous chapters a couple of times to confirm the setting and the time period, but it didn’t take me out of the story. I enjoy books that ask more from the reader; books where you have to put some work in to fully appreciate the author’s imagination. Yes, I read books to relax but I don’t mind a challenge when it comes around. I’ve written about this before, especially regarding some of William Gibson’s books. But I digress.
Tade Thompson’s worldbuilding is excellent. As well as the geographic setting of near-future Nigeria, Thompson has created a cyberspace-like location known as the “xenosphere”. More visceral than William Gibson’s creation, Thompson’s xenosphere contains fantastic avatars which are a mix of mythological creatures and original beings dreamed up by the human sensitives. This makes for some otherworldly encounters which are both fascinating and disturbing to read.
‘I have grown several feet, and distorted. I have feathered wings, an eagle’s beak, a lion’s body. My space is a tall, hedged maze, with cloud formations in the sky and complex combinations of wind, breeze, light and dark.’
Main characters are limited in Rosewater, which allows Thompson to create a memorable main protagonist in Kaaro. He is an antihero, a fallible human being who has made mistakes in the past and continues to do so in the present. This adds to his believability. He is also an unreliable narrator. Kaaro is telling his side of the story subjective to his memories and experiences. The more we learn about him and his past, the less certain we become about his intentions. What does he really want? And who is he really working for? Thompson keeps us turning the pages to find these answers and more.
I could go on singing the praises of this book but I’m trying my best not to reveal too much about it. I haven’t even touched on the themes of colonialism, genetic modification, the fear of the other, sexuality, death and more. Rosewater is a great deal more than just another first contact story. To paraphrase the great Walt Whitman, it contains multitudes. I hope I’ve made it clear how much I enjoyed this book. It might not be for everyone but if your curiosity has been piqued by my review, I urge you to give it a try. Despite being the first part of a trilogy Rosewater can be read as a standalone novel.