A Tunnel in the Sky

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The Wormwood Trilogy
by Tade Thompson

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 23, 2018
Edits and Addenda on February 18, 2020 & August 8, 2021

Rosewater / The Rosewater Insurrection / The Rosewater Redemption

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I'm not sure if this is eligible for awards consideration next year. Orbit published a new paperback edition of Rosewater in September, but I don't know if it had been edited from the first printing by Apex in 2016. The earlier edition was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award last year, and it won the inaugural Nommo Award from the African Speculative Fiction Society. It has been showing up on multiple "Best of 2018" lists over the past month or so. Whether it is eligible or not, it is still highly recommended, and I'm looking forward to reading the second book which comes out in March. A third title has been announced, but not its publication date. The series has the collective title of The Wormwood Trilogy, but I decided to use the first book's title in the URL for this page, since the others will also include that in their titles.

EDIT: Apparently the new edition was eligible for some awards, as it won the 2019 Arthur C. Clarke, which might mean it had been edited from the original.

LATER EDIT: The complete trilogy was a finalist for the 2020 Hugo for Best Series.

I feel the need to re-read it right away, both because it is so good, but also parts were confusing. It's possible my explanations will be confusing too, because I need to refrain from spoilers as much as possible. It is written in first person, but due to the nature of the narrator, you can't always assume what he describes is part of his own history of consciousness. Kaaro is a "sensitive," which in some ways is like being psychic, but in other ways different from what you might think that term means. I am sure I got the gist of the plot, but there were times I was mixed up about which timeline the action was taking place. There are three main timelines tracked, plus mentions of previous events even further in the past. It begins in 2066, in Rosewater, Nigeria, but we also get flashbacks to Lagos in 2032, and several points in between, and not every shift in perspective follows those events in a chronological order. I occasionally had a hard time remembering where the narrative left off for a particular timeline or scenario. You have to pay attention to the chapter headings, which identify the year and location.

In his teen years, and beyond, Kaaro was a thief. He never thought of his ability as "mind reading," but he was always able to perceive things other people thought of as valuable, and where those items were hidden. He was quite successful for many years…until he stole from his mother. Vigilante justice was common in Nigeria, and when his mother called for neighbors to catch Kaaro he was forced to run, and in doing so he encountered a couple of other men who shared his mental ability. They help him understand and perfect the gift, which brings him to the attention of another man, not a sensitive himself, but one who knew how to capitalize on Kaaro's talents. That in turn led Kaaro to come to the attention of Section 45, a Nigerian intelligence operation. They had been training other sensitives, whom they refer to as "finders." Kaaro advances in training to the point he is considered their most valuable asset, all the while feeling uncomfortable about his assignments, most of which are interrogations of suspects. He is never in the room with them, but can still read them. Even when he is not present for their more overt torture, he knows about it since the effects linger in the suspects' minds. At times it is also difficult for him to disassociate himself from things he learns from his interrogations, such as the pain of loss the victims feel.

Most of that explanation might imply this is a fantasy, but what Kaaro and the other sensitives can do is the result of an alien…I think infestation is the better word, rather than invasion. The alien presence had introduced xenospores, which attach themselves to certain individuals, although it's not clear why everyone is not affected in the same way. The xenospores then created the xenosphere, sort of an alternate mental dimension. This is what Kaaro accesses when he senses other people's thoughts, desires, and fears, and he learns he can project thoughts and images into other people's minds too. This can also be considered an alternate history story, since it is implied that 2012 was the genesis point of the creation of the xenosphere, but a later revelation indicates the alien entity (entities?) have been on Earth even longer than human history. There is another side plot about a brilliant scientist who has developed a technology that creates alternate spacial dimensions, and while it is implied that has nothing to do with the xenosphere, I'm not positive about that. Rosewater is a city that gradually grew up around an alien "biodome," which was created in 2055 as a direct result of one of Kaaro's S45 investigations. Since then, he has been in the middle of most of the phenomena connected to the dome, with his abilities increasing exponentially.

I've been enjoying a lot of books set within countries and cultures out of the mainstream of most SF and Fantasy. Thompson was born in the UK, but for a time lived in Nigeria. He is familiar with its history and current political and social institutions, both the good and the bad, and it is obvious he cares about the country and its peoples of all tribal identities. Kaaro grew up in Lagos, but now lives in Rosewater. He's an interesting character, but not what you would call sympathetic. He's emotionally closed off, selfish and self-serving. None of the other characters are easy to read either. Most work from their own agenda, and it's hard to judge who's on the right side of things, or even what the right side is. All of the above just barely scratches the surface of the plot, and with two more books on the way, there's no telling how many other revelations there will be. As fantastically pyrotechnic as Kaaro's excursions into the xenosphere are, his mundane interactions with people in the real world are just as interesting, including his new-found love, Aminat. It's too early to judge the aliens. Are they malevolent, benign, or our ultimate salvation? Maybe a combination of all three, or maybe their agenda can be altered or bent to humanity's benefit. I'm anxious to find out.


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Posted February 18, 2020:
There are many things I didn't mention about the first book, and I'll endeavor to make comments about The Rosewater Insurrection as spoiler free as possible too, but I should tell you why it's called the Wormwood trilogy. That was the name given to the alien phenomenon by the British when it crash landed in London in 2012. The name comes from the Bible, Revelation 8:10. The British thought they destroyed it; instead it burrowed through the Earth's crust for decades, resurfacing in Nigeria in 2055. It had incorporated a homeless man into its structure. Anthony Salerno became Wormwood's proxy in communicating with humanity. Kaaro once saved Anthony's life, and in turn Anthony later saved Kaaro, at least twice. Now Anthony, or whatever is animated in his body, is dying, and another entity seems to be attempting to destroy Wormwood, although it's not clear if this weird plant creature derived from Wormwood's planet of origin, or if it's from another ecosystem altogether.

The first book was a first-person account by Kaaro, how he discovered his sensitive abilities, his training as a S45 agent, how he became inextricably linked to the xenosphere and Wormwood. There are a couple of sections in Insurrection in first-person, by different people, although the majority is third-person perspectives of several others, with Kaaro not figuring into the plot much until the climax. The major players include Jack Jacques, the "mayor" of Rosewater. He created that position for himself, and while he was elected there was no opposition and it's likely that few people voted. Most people don't like him, Kaaro in particular, although he seems to be that rarity among politicians, sincere about doing the best for Rosewater's inhabitants in spite of all the obstacles. He declares Rosewater, now the most populous city in Nigeria, to be an independent city-state, which triggers military action from Nigeria. One of the first-person accounts is from another S45 agent, Eric, who was tasked with assassinating Jacques in 2055, but that effort failed. He is assigned other duties in the interim, but again is called on to kill Jacques in 2067. Other perspectives are from Alyssa Sutcliffe, a Rosewater housewife who seems to have been chosen by Wormwood to replace Anthony; Aminat, Kaaro's girlfriend, whom he did not know until late in the first book was also a S45 agent; Walter Tanmola, a writer recruited by Jacques to chronicle the events of the insurrection; and Lora Asiko, Walter's unique assistant, who later becomes an assistant to Jacques. One chapter is Walter's first-person account, but previous chapters had been excerpts from one of his novels set in Rosewater.

The term insurrection has multiple meanings here, or at least I interpreted it that way. One is Jacques' declaration of independence, another is the plant that is attacking Wormwood. Kaaro had mostly been a loose cannon, but now Aminat also forges her own agenda, abandoning orders and following her own instincts, and in one instance strikes her superior officer. Alyssa is able to exert her influence over the power that invaded her body, and in so doing persuades them to adopt a plan suggested by Aminat. It's a win for many factions, possibly even for Nigeria, but I'll have to wait and see about that. Neither of these books are perfect (what is?), and I could nitpick certain things but won't spare the time. I've rated both 5 stars on Goodreads, and expect to be wowed again by the third book. Thompson is quickly becoming a major voice in science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Yes, there is a bit of the latter here, but I won't elaborate. The action is exciting, the speculations about future tech intriguing, and the ruminations on intelligence (human and alien), compassion, love, and loyalty are inspiring. Can't wait to continue this story, and hopefully Lora appears again (yet another thing I don't want to spoil).


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Posted August 8, 2020:
I've been re-reading several books this year before getting to their sequels, but in this case I settled for just the last few chapters of Insurrection. I do intend to read the trilogy again one of these days, and when I do I hope it is all in one go, in order to keep all the complexities of the plot clear in my head. Like its predecessor, The Rosewater Redemption has both first-person and third-person accounts. The first-person narrator is someone I didn't mention in my comments above, but Oyin Da was connected to the man who had found a way to access an alternate dimension, or at least that was what she thought. She was known to many as Bicycle Girl, since the device her 'father' perfected used stationary bicycles to generate electricity. We learn the device had been rebuilt from a previous version, created several hundred years in the past. Oyin Da eventually meets the original creator, or at least a xenospheric version of him, since her consciousness is able to travel in time, and he has that ability too. Oyin Da ages from the time she first met Kaaro when he was a young boy, to the 'present day' events in Rosewater, but she is not sure how or why she could do that, since she learns she isn't really alive. She's a 'ghost' for lack of a better term, existing within the xenosphere, but also able to interact with humans in the 'real' world, although she cannot touch them or any material object.

Confused yet? The third-person perspectives are mostly characters we met in the previous books, even if I didn't mention some of them by name above. Femi Alaagomeji was Kaaro and Aminat's superior at Section 45. She is now a double (or triple?) agent, whose S45 colleagues think she is still with them, but she variously aligns with Jack Jacques or Kaaro on occasion. Kaaro is retired from S45, and Aminat is Jacques' chief of security in Rosewater. Other chapters revolve around Eric, Kaaro's S45 rival; Hannah Jacques, an attorney pursuing a case that infuriates her husband; the President of Nigeria and staff; several other current or former S45 agents; along with various and sundry criminal elements, some of whom support the alien Wormwood, others in opposition. Lora Asiko is featured again too, but I am still not saying anything more about her. Oyin Da weaves in and out of all these scenarios, even goes back to London in 2012 to meet a disaffected American CIA agent, whom she later learns is still alive and living in Rosewater. Everyone, including Oyin Da, is working from incomplete information. Wormwood had exhibited healing capabilities, which is the main reason Rosewater's population grew so large. It could also reanimate the dead. When the plant that had been attacking Wormwood was destroyed at the end of the second book, an agreement was reached between Jacques and Koriko (formerly known as the human Alyssa Sutcliffe). Wormwood would be allowed to use the reanimates as repositories of alien consciousnesses, which had been stored on servers somewhere in deep space. The case Hannah Jacques brings to court presents evidence that the reanimates, or some of them, retain remnants of their human consciousness, thus they should not be given over to Wormwood. It becomes even more serious when agents of Wormwood start killing many humans in order to expand the ranks of aliens on Earth. It's such a massively complex situation, with few options for the humans to correct the mistakes they have made.

Anyone who thinks I've given too many details, be aware this just skims the surface. In addition to all the dynamic action, there are interesting discussions about consciousness and identity; the Cartesian duality debate; morality and consequences in politics; self-sufficiency versus community responsibility. The series concludes satisfactorily, and while I doubt Thompson will revisit this, it doesn't mean I won't be thinking of things that might happen in the future. Most of that revolves around whether Kaaro and Oyin Da can maintain the xenospere without Wormwood's influence. I'll be thinking about Oyin Da's further adventures with her wife and daughter. Wait! How does a ghost have a child? Yet one more mind-bending aspect of these remarkable books. I cannot recommend them strongly enough. Another 5 star rating.


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Tade Thompson


Rosewater won:
Arthur C. Clarke
Finalist for:
Campbell Memorial

Finalist for:

Finalist for:

Complete Trilogy
Finalist for:
2020 Best Series Hugo

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