Rosewater (The Wormwood Trilogy)
by Tade Thompson
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Rosewater / The Rosewater Insurrection / The Rosewater Redemption
I'm still not sure if the first book in this trilogy is eligible for awards consideration next year. Orbit published a new paperback edition of Rosewater in September, but I don't know if it has 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.
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. 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 S45, 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 grew up 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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