Inci German reviews Tade Thompson's Rosewater
This review is long overdue. Tade Thompson's Rosewater got first nominated for the Campbell Award as best science fiction novel in 2016, then for the African speculative fiction awards, the Nommo Awards, in 2017 and deservedly won the latter. I have been contemplating Thompson's way up - got curious, got the book, read it, loved it, thought I ought to write something about it, and then, as life goes, forgot about it. A few months later the Meetup Berlin Science Fiction Book Club (no, not our Otherland Book Club, but a friendly fellow book club that I occasionally like to join) announced they would be reading it in February and if that wasn't enough signs from the "Universe" for me to write this review, everybody present at the discussion fancied it! Those of you who attend book clubs surely know what a difficult achievement that is. So here I am finally giving in to the universe!
Set in 2066 in an alternate/future Nigeria, the story follows past and present events in protagonist Kaaro's life. He lives in Rosewater, a doughnut shaped fictional town, encircling an alien construction called the Biodome which encompasses the mysterious Utopicity. Yeah that's right, in Thompson's universe extraterrestrial entities have been visiting and besieging Earth as early as 2012, when an amorphous THING called Wormwood implemented itself underground London and started releasing strange funghi-like microorganisms into its surroundings, basically xenoforming Earth slowly but surely.
One of the consequences are the so-called sensitives, people who have been affected by these funghi so that they can act and move in a virtual alien network called the xenosphere and who can read/feel the minds of others.
Kaaro works at the Integrity Bank as a contractor - a sensitive who acts as a firewall by reading classic books and thus filling the xenosphere with useless information, making it harder for feral sensitives to steal information from bank customers e.g. passwords, birth dates etc. As a sideline he uses his powers to interrogate people held captive by a government unit called S45.
Wild, right? Wait, it gets even crazier: Every year the Biodome opens for about half an hour curing everyone in its vicinity. The book starts with one of these insane "Openings" that attract all sorts of freakish people and that don't only cure illnesses but also irregularities that don't really were meant to be cured, leaving even more freakish people behind and as a very nasty side effect, raising the dead.
Meanwhile Kaaro's life is all haywire; between falling for the lovely Aminat, meeting her very extraordinary brother Layi, the super arcane butterfly-woman Molara with whom he occasionally catches up in the xenosphere, the ever so mysterious missions of the S45 and the pursuit for the Bicycle Girl, an anarchistic enemy of the state, he finds out that more and more sensitives have been dying for no apparent reason. As the circle of events draws tighter around Kaaro, more and more light is shed on the nature of the aliens inhabiting Earth.
That was basically the synopsis and as you see only the setup and the storyline are complex, agile and dynamic enough to keep this book going. But there is even more awesomeness here! First of all Rosewater is a great, solid science fiction tale that is based on a logic that feels very natural. Surely I have no idea how a post-first contact-world feels like, but I totally buy Thompson's version and think it could really happen that way! (I will not go into details as I don't want to spoil much, sorry).
Another aspect that sticks out as masterly is the author's elaboration of human psychology. Being a consultant psychiatrist, Thompson knows the stuff to make his characters feel acutely real and alive. Let's take Kaaro for instance; yes he's not a textbook example of a protagonist. Even though he does have superpowers he only wants to get on with his life and seems sort of opportunistic at times. He can be an asshole and certainly has a penchant for machismo. BUT he's so damn lovable at times and has a very distinct sense of humor. This versatility applies to all characters in the book.
However, many online reviewers and quite a few participants of the meetup club pointed out that the chronological segmentation of the book seems to cause some confusion. For the record: The story is roughly divided in three time zones; today (2066), eleven years ago (2055) and everything that comes before and the author randomly jumps between years and events. I personally have no problem with this, but that seems to be the only negative thing readers have to say about Rosewater. And that flaw is really a minor one for a book that is otherwise perfect all around!
Rosewater is currently out of print and will be re-released in September 2018 by Orbit Books and will finally be available at the Otherland Bookshop presumably from October on (The print version. The ebook is of course available). To be honest this is a shame, shame, shame... I want to recommend it wildly to each and every single one of our customers but we can't bring it to you yet. What you can do though, is to get by with the ebook version of this afrofuturistic masterpiece for the time being and sink into this vivid, mind-boggling world before buying the hard copy! You have my most fierce and violent recommendations. LOVE this book!