Review: Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Rosewater by Tade Thompson (Orbit 2018)

Reviewed by Stephanie Chariton

British author and psychiatrist Tade Thompson’s stories and shorts have been critically acclaimed worldwide. His debut novel, Rosewater, won both the Nommo Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, one of the most prestigious awards in the U.K. Originally published in 2016, the Wormwood trilogy’s first installment is a deep dive into a world of aliens, with a beautiful mix of psychic powers, detective work, and sci-fi at its best. 

Set in 2066 in Nigeria, the town of Rosewater has developed around an alien dome with mysterious healing powers. Rendering America “dark” and swallowing the whole of London, the aliens don’t actually interact with humanity except for the introduction of the “xenosphere,” a shared telepathic space connecting all of humanity. Through the release of microscopic fungal spores, humans like Karro, a government soldier and “sensitive” endowed with psychic powers can access the xenoshere. The dome, which acts as an ever-present character in Thompson’s books, opens once a year, briefly, to heal all those in the vicinity – though not always in ways you’d expect. 

Despite this healing, sensitives like Karro are mysteriously falling sick and dying. An unusually gifted sensitive with questionable morals and a penchant for sexism, Karro must discover what is killing off his kind before he too becomes a fatality. As he digs deeper into the source of the illness, his troubled past collides with the volatile present. Thompson expertly weaves timelines together to unveil the growth of a complicated character who routinely falls into the “gray” area between good and evil. 

Alternating timelines and some long chapters can make this book a tough read on occasion. With many mundane scenes in which Karro contemplates which food truck to get lunch at or the human but not necessarily essential descriptions of bodily functions, the story can feel slightly long. But overlooking these minor flaws, the entire series is a cerebral powerhouse with intricate plots and just the right amount of weirdness. 

Not too long ago, African science fiction novels were unheard of. British-born, Yoruba-heritage writer, Tade Thompson, however, is making a big splash in a group that seems to be growing by the day. From Egypt to South Africa, new sci-fi writers of Nigerian heritage are making a name for themselves, including Deji Bryce Olukotun and Nnedi Okorafor. The Wormwood trilogy, with its latest installments released in 2019, is sure to become a favorite in the sci-fi genre. 

Thompson’s second book in the trilogy introduces multiple viewpoints as Karro continues to investigate the mysterious healing powers of the ever-present alien dome and Jack Jacques, Rosewater’s charismatic mayor, fights for independence from the Nigerian government. During the final installment, Rosewater: Redemption, the two must come to an uneasy truce when a choice must be made between peace with the aliens and a wholly different kind of independence. 

There’s a lot going on in this series, with soulless zombies, carnivorous plants, psychic humans, and the diplomatic thrills of a liberation struggle. Thompson weaves together a cyberpunk thrill ride with an off-beat love story, alien invasion, and disengaged protagonist with an expert sense of wry humor. Though not for everyone, Rosewater packs a punch and is an excellent addition to any collection of science fiction.      

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