Published in 2016 in the US and 2018 in the UK, Rosewater is Tade Thompson’s second novel and his sci-fi debut. This book won the Arthur C Clarke Book of the Year prize in 2019 and after reading it I can see why. I found this a compelling story from start to finish.
Set in Nigeria in 2066, Rosewater tells the tale of an alternative future Earth, where there has been incontrovertible first contact with alien life following an incident in London in 2012. After this momentous event an alien biodome appears in a remote part of Nigeria in 2055. As the nature of the biodome becomes clear, not least its ability to heal those in close proximity to it when it opens each year, the town of Rosewater is rapidly established to make access to and study of the phenomena easier.
Linked to the events in London in 2012, a number of individuals, known as sensitives, have developed psychic powers. We learn they gain these from their ability to access the xenosphere, an organic interconnected web of fungal spores present in the atmosphere which gathers data from individuals when it comes into contact with their skin. Sensitives can use their powers to roam the xenosphere and the worlds that exist within this, somewhat like virtual reality. They can also use their skills to access the thoughts and minds of other people.
Kaaro is one of the most talented sensitives on the planet and he is recruited by S45, part of Nigeria’s secret service, who exploit his powers. We quickly learn during the story that Kaaro is not a hero, initially misusing his powers for criminal ends. This makes him an intriguing and unpredictable character, ill-suited to working with authority but unable to resist the lure of the pay cheque on offer.
Thompson tells a fascinating tale, mainly dealing with the moral implications of the powers possessed by sensitives. The motives of the alien life on Earth are unclear and yet people flock to Rosewater in the hope of being cured of their ailments, which takes on a quasi-religious angle. Whilst some people are healed, the aliens don’t always change their bodies in the way they expect. There’s also a rather unfortunate side-effect, where those who have recently died are reanimated as zombies, walking the streets and causing havoc until they are put down by the Nigerian military and killed for a second time.
Kaaro works for S45 to uncover the secrets of the aliens and also maintain the Nigerian government’s hold on power. He has to balance these demands with those of his day job working as a xenosphere security consultant for a bank and his burgeoning romance with Aminat, who has plenty of secrets of her own. Aminat is a great character and I also liked Bola, Kaaro’s colleague from the bank, and his long suffering boss at S45, Femi.
With its strong sense of place and with so much shrouded in mystery, Rosewater is an unforgettable read, as Kaaro slowly uncovers the truth. He might not want to be a hero, but that doesn’t stop him finding himself at the centre of a deadly conspiracy where there are various factions vying for power.
I think the only thing that lets down the story is the narrative structure. The novel is written using two main split timelines, taking place in 2066 and 2055. However, this is interspersed with various events that took place in other years. These are focussed on various interludes, training sessions, missions, unrelated incidents and Kaaro’s reflections. As all this is recounted in what appears to be a rather random order, it means various key facts and details regarding certain characters are only explained at the end. As a result I found this made some of the concepts and the meaning of certain events difficult to grasp without that wider context. I read this book in less than a week, but despite that I still found it difficult to follow the story at times.
Whilst I think that was a weakness, there is much in Rosewater to admire. Thompson confidently tackles some profound themes around cultural identity and what it means to be human, mixing this in with big sci-fi concepts. The alternative future history elements are really convincing and the characters are well written and believable. I’ve not read anything else like this, so if you want to try something completely different in the sci-fi genre this would be an excellent place to start. Highly recommended.