The Wormwood Trilogy
by Tade Thompson
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 23, 2018
Edits and Addendum on February 18, 2020
Rosewater / The Rosewater Insurrection / The Rosewater Redemption
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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 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.
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 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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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. They think 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 it it's from another ecosystem altogether.
Rosewater 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; and Walter Tanmola, a writer recruited by Jacques to chronicle the events of the insurrection. 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 about 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, just more things I don't want to spoil. 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 for The Rosewater Redemption. Don't have it yet, but hopefully very soon, and hopefully Lora appears again (yet another thing I don't want to spoil).
To be continued.
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