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Rosewater is an alien invasion story far more concerned with how alien humans are from each other. Tade Thompson’s protagonist, Kaaro, challenges the reader with his telepathic insights – and his grating, jaundiced view of a world gone severely askew under extraterrestrial occupation.
Set in near-future Nigeria, Rosewater follows a government-contracted sensitive trying to hold his life together near ground zero of an alien invader’s domed stronghold. Kaaro is part of a small but powerful contingent of humans who have developed true, undeniable telepathic and empathic abilities. Though history contains many outlandish claims to such powers, the arrival of “Wormwood”, an ineffable extraterrestrial intelligence, has made telepathy real.
Kaaro’s prowess with his particular gifts keep him employed, as both psychic firewall for a banking institution and as an instrument for a secretive government agency. But those same powers also make him miserable. He sees too much of the repugnant inner workings of people, which leads him to close himself off. Just when he finally meets a woman who arouses an emotional attachment, Kaaro discovers that something is killing his fellow sensitives. Repercussions from his own criminal past collide with his highly compromised present as he struggles against the yoke of his government employers to find answers – and to stay alive.
The novel follows a linear narrative – Kaaro in the 2066 present – interspersed with non-sequential flashbacks from his past. These consistent digressions overlap the primary plot to slowly expand our understanding of Kaaro’s history and motivations. It’s a complicated structure that is sometimes confusing, as moments in different times include the same characters interacting. I found myself backtracking occasionally to clarify where I was in the book’s timeline. However, each flashback enhances the main story around them, giving just enough information to contextualize Kaaro’s worldview and motivations. Every “huh?” moment pays off, which I found gratifying as the story progressed.
The plot of Rosewater is hard to distill, though. For a good half of the book, I couldn’t pin down what was moving the story or where it was going. The flashback sequences create a density of story and richness of setting, but they also slow the movement of the primary narrative. It takes a long time to get to the driving mystery of the novel. It’s a technique that could have backfired spectacularly in less skilled hands. Somehow, Thompson uses the piecemeal delivery of information in the backstory segments to retain inertia and sustain curiosity.
Another challenge the reader will face is the often unlikeable point of view of Kaaro. This is a disillusioned and morally untethered man with a long history of poor decisions. He has been a thief and miscreant, and the flashbacks illustrate his many misdeeds and failings. As a first person POV narrator, Kaaro makes no attempts to pretty-up his history. He frankly admits what a disaster of a human being he is, his petty angers and penchant for lustful behaviors. Seeing through his eyes is both insightful and humiliating, because Kaaro’s history is never short on educational humiliations. Despite being perhaps the most powerful of the modern day sensitives, he is a puppet controlled by many strings. Every attempt to cut those bindings results in ever more dire circumstances.
Rosewater has a lot of big ideas at work which take the alien invasion trope in excitingly atypical directions. The invader, called “Wormwood” by the human populace, has created a large, domed safe space in Nigeria. Its presence offers some unique boons to the locals: a near-magical yearly healing of the ill and injured; a power source from huge ganglion electrical structures; and the source of the sensitive communities telepathic abilities. The latter, a nano-sized, invisible physical network – called the xenosphere – connects human minds like a biological internet. Only some can access it, and there are ways to block it. And the lesson we learn from Kaaro’s experience is that penetrating the minds of others is a fast track to loathing humanity.
Wormwood acts mostly as a silent partner, its impact always felt, but taking a backseat to the human drama. This isn’t a story of alien combat, laser pistols and pew-pew action. Kaaro actually hates guns and mostly refuses to use them, and is shown time and again to be a poor fighter. Though violence permeates the story, the most significant resolutions in Rosewater don’t come from physical struggle. Instead, Kaaro’s confrontations involve his own misgivings and avoidances, and the alluring but poisonous entities in the xenosphere.
Despite his telepathic abilities, the rest of Rosewater’s supporting cast offer infuriating conundrums for Kaaro. Hi boss, Femi, is a hard-ass government agent who only tolerates Kaaro’s self-serving and often cowardly bullshit because he is a useful tool. Her overwhelming attractiveness keeps him off-balance, but the fact that she is clearly more intelligent than him is the great hook for his attentions. The love interest, Aminat, is kind and clever, and willing to peel back his abrasive layers to find a worthy man beneath. But Aminat harbors a number of her own secrets and mysteries, including dangerous liaisons, and her angelic younger brother, Layi, who is voluntarily shackled at her family’s home.
There are a LOT of supporting characters in Rosewater, with interweaving subplots leaving subtle ripples of influence – or sledgehammer impacts. Keeping everyone straight was taxing at times, especially with the non-linear delivery. They all illuminate Kaaro’s evolution from reckless, greedy, libido-driven young man to suspicious, disinterested, still lustful older adult. But there are few I think could have been removed in the editing stage for a tighter narrative.
Rosewater isn’t casual entertainment sci-fi. This is thinking person’s speculative fiction, which rewards a slower read-through and appreciation for its human truths. The Nigerian dialect cadence and social constructs may challenge western readers at times, but that’s a good thing, and gets easier quickly. Its not-entirely-linear structure complicates the experience, but that’s also part of what makes this novel stand out from more mundane alien invasion tales. This is science fiction that makes you ask questions, and keeps you curious, long after the reading experience is over.
Though I sometimes found it frustrating – particularly its unlikeable protagonist – Rosewater delivers a fascinating world steeped in unique sci-fi ideas. Even when I disliked Kaaro, I found his insights and experiences illuminating. And it’s been a long time since I’ve read a protagonist that’s anything like him.
This is solidly mature speculative fiction. Being old enough to recognize my own failings and foibles reflected (however exaggeratedly) in Kaaro’s arc is uncomfortable yet also reassuring. This is a long-intellectual-discussion-over-tea-with-a-friend fiction, and I am here for it.
I like the way the typography dominates the book cover, and the subtle way the graphic design simulates the xenosphere. It’s definitely eye-catching. The premise of the book would have drawn me.
I look forward to the next two books in the “Wormwood” series, so this one will definitely keep its place in my collection.
Adron Buske is a speaker, writer, interviewer, and multimedia storyteller. A media professional since 2001, he spent 11 years in the radio industry as a digital creative director and, later, a corporate executive. He has worn many creative hats: video production director, graphic designer, web developer, fashion photographer, performing musician, gaming festival organizer, comic creator, and voice talent. He is a frequent speaker at pop culture conventions around the country, presenting seminars about entertainment careers, the craft of storytelling, and ways to power-up your life using concepts from gaming and fiction.
The Fictitious Podcast, hosted & produced by Adron Buske, delves into the craft of Science Fiction and Fantasy storytelling through interviews with authors and other writers, creators, and publishing professionals.