Author: Tade Thompson (twitter)
UK Publisher: Orbit
Rosewater is a town on the edge. A community formed around the edges of a mysterious alien biodome, its residents comprise the hopeful, the hungry and the helpless – people eager for a glimpse inside the dome or a taste of its rumoured healing powers.
Kaaro is a government agent with a criminal past. He has seen inside the biodome, and doesn’t care to again – but when something begins killing off others like himself, Kaaro must defy his masters to search for an answer, facing his dark history and coming to a realisation about a horrifying future.
I don’t know whether there has been a surge in SFF informed by other cultures in recent years, or whether my attempt to diversify my reading list has just made me more aware of the wealth of books out there. Given ongoing issues with diversity in publishing lists, I suspect it might be a little of both – publishers are starting to make a really conscious effort to expand the authors they publish, and this has happened at the same time as I have been making an effort to read outside the easy grabs within genres and challenging myself to be more considered in my selections.
Rosewater is set in Nigeria, in a city which has grown up around a mysterious alien bubble. Once a year, the bubble opens and miraculously heals people, prompting a festival and pilgrimages. But it’s not all clear-cut benevolence – random dead bodies are brought back to life, although they have no memories or personality, their bodies function and shuffle around and attack people until they are rounded up and re-killed by government officials. There are also people who attempt to game the system, mutilate themselves in an attempt to improve themselves in the healing, and end up warped – a girl who cuts her lips to try and make them fuller ends up with two mouths for example, whilst a man grafts bird wings onto himself, given control of them by the dome.
The dead, the healing, the warped people – these aren’t the plot. But they do give a sense of the casual grotesquery which forms the backdrop of the narrative. Rosewateris a sci-fi book, but it’s very earthy and grounded. It keeps a sense of the grunge and dirt that covers humanity, both physically and psychologically. It’s very physical and brutal. A lot of this is because of Kaaro’s narrative – he’s selfish, petty, cowardly and preoccupied with sex. He thinks about it constantly, and also has strange erotic encounters with the avatar of another psychic within the Xenosphere – the psychic landscape accessible by Sensitives, people who developed telepathic powers one day with no explanation.
What really struck me about Rosewater was that, whilst it is set clearly in the future, with the advanced technology and connectivity, the conceit of the alien is very organic. It’s a mushroom, a fungus spreading under the surface of the planet and sending out spores. Sensitives derive their powers from microscopic fungus which can survive on their skin and connects them to every living being by the immense network of the alien. Anti-fungal creams suppress it, as do sealed rooms with filtered air flow. This really emphasises the idea that everything is connected to the alien, and pushes the insidious nature of it as the books progresses. I also felt that it really juxtaposed the human and the alien – we see the growth of Rosewater from a shanty town to a metropolis, but Thompson doesn’t shy away from the practical impact of that. They had no infrastructure, no plumbing, no water. I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I’ve read a more scatalogical book, but it’s also sexual and brutal. It’s like Thompson saw the clinical automation of technology that often populates SF and as a reaction made his characters and narrative that much more human and biological and visceral in reaction. It makes for a really fascinating tone and plot.
There is a set of split timelines, dated and labelled ‘then’ and ‘now’ – Kaaro in the present, dealing with the mystery of why Sensitives are disappearing, albeit reluctantly; Kaaro at the start of his powers, using them to steal and scam people; and Kaaro somewhere in between, showing how his relationship with the government department he works for got started. It can get a little disorientating keeping track of the three timelines – sometimes I needed to flick back to the ‘now’ chapters to put the story into context. As the book progressed, however, and the story built up further, it became easier to see where each section fit – like a jigsaw puzzle being slowly completed. It mixes murder mystery with science fiction with something quite literary in Kaaro’s development and growth. He’s a self-involved, sex-obsessed coward throughout, but as you see him age he begins to take more ownership and control of it, wielding his own temperament on purpose. He’s an interesting character – he’s not a great guy, but he’s also not awful, and you can relate to him and feel empathy for the situations he finds himself in, if not necessarily the way he handles them all the time.
I am hugely glad I read this book, and I can’t wait to read the next in the series.
- A fantastic novel with a clear and unique voice, taking the prospect of aliens and future technology and making it all seem completely human.
- The world is so fully described from the grandest alien actions to the smallest administrative minutiae, it feels robust and real, but didn’t get bogged down in exposition.
- Kaaro is a jerk, but he is a jerk who I could empathise with. As the book progresses more aspects of his character slot into place and by the end he is fully fleshed out, although not necessarily a better person for it.
Rating: 4/5 – this was unlike anything else I have read before and it blew me away a little.