Map of Blue Book Balloon

15 September 2018

Review - Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Tade Thompson
Orbit, 20 September 2018
PB, 390pp

I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance copy of Rosewater.

Rosewater is a near future SF novel (set around 40 years from now) with the action taking place in Nigeria, partly in Lagos but mostly in the new city of Rosewater (named ironically, from its initial lack of sanitation). This is a near future where aliens have landed, though humanity struggled to understand them, or to disentangle the aliens themselves from their ships/ habitats. Rosewater grew up surrounding an alien "biodome" (hence, it is doughnut shaped, making travel awkward) for reasons that Thompson only slowly reveals.

Thompson has created a genuinely new and disturbing concept of "alienness" in this book, which he has fun sharing only gradually and which really challenges the classic "little green beings in spaceships" concept. As this nature is closely bound with what is really going on, it needs to be kept under wraps until very late in the book. A great deal of the early story is driven by a more thriller-y style plot, focussed on Kaaro, one of a special paramilitary team called "Section 45") of Government agents recruited because the presence of the alien has endowed them with superhuman abilities.

There is plenty of mystery in that, together with Kaaro's special gifts, to keep the story humming along. Kaaro is able to read others' thoughts via the "xenosphere", a kind of field generated by the alien presence, and as part of S45, this ability is employed interrogating suspects or defending against hackers using the xenosphere to attack banks or collect sensitive information. Before joining S45, Kaaro used his talent for more dubious ends so he's very much poacher turned gamekeeper.

Dotting backwards and forwards between the present day (2066) and several earlier timelines, the book shows how the current situation - the alien Biodome dominating Rosewater, providing free power, granting annual healings to those in the vicinity, but also, awkwardly, reanimating the dead - - arose, but also Kaaro's personal journey to S45, what he has done and what he has suffered - and who he has betrayed.  We see Kaaro's current caseload, his reservations about his job, and the messy internal politics of S45. And a threat to the unit...

We also see Kaaro's developing relationship with the mysterious Aminat, perhaps with some concern (he's not the most reliable of chaps...) and  a particular, special connection to the Dome (implying Kaaro also knows more than he's letting on).

It took me a little while to get used to the switching between timelines, as there is a lot of action going on everywhen. Inevitably at any given time a couple of the threads are left hanging, often on a cliffhanger. This is very much a book to be read through without distractions or delays as it does, piece by piece, build to a kind of holographic unity where the parallel strands reinforce one another. Superbly paced, they do come together and this is a compulsive story, always driving forward, written with a very distinctive narrative voice and with a great sense of place.

In particular, Thompson is able to draw analogies between Nigeria's past, colonised by Britain, and the situation it potentially faces now with regard to the nameless aliens. Indeed, Kaaro notes in a couple of places that this gives an advantage compared with, for example, the US, whose response to the incursion seems to have been to go dark completely, or Britain itself (don't ask).

Kaaro himself is an engaging protagonist, well rounded and sympathetic to a degree although you really shouldn't trust him. The supporting characters are also well portrayed, especially his boss Femi (who I wanted to hear much more about) although I found his attitude to her a bit crass at times. (That's Kaaro...)

The story leaves a number of key threads unresolved (the power struggle in S45 itself, the eventual outcome of the encounter with the aliens, the fate of Aminat's brother who is an intriguing wildcard in this story, and indeed, what becomes of the relationship between Kaaro and Amina) - enough of these to encourage me to hope for more from this world, but even if that doesn't happen it's still left a vivid impression of two distinct cultures working in each other to ends that, perhaps, both sides are unable to foresee (even the super advanced aliens).

Strongly recommended.

For more about Rosewater see the Orbit website here.

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