Rosewater by Tade Thompson (Book Review)
The Good: I can’t even attempt to summarise the good in a line or two – all I can say is that Rosewater blew my expectations out of the water in every way possible.
The Bad: This will NOT be for everyone. Seriously. It doesn’t get off to a bumpy or even a slow start, but I did have to invest in it as a reader, but I’m so glad I did as it paid off dividends.
The Ugly Truth: Combining cyberpunk and the cultural richness of a near-future Nigeria is one of the most unexpected things I have ever had the joy of reading. Part Blade Runner, part District 9 (done right) this is the type of story that will no doubt carve out its own cult status, and change perceptions of what sci fi of today (and tomorrow) can do when it dares to be different.
The Review: Rosewater is one of the most compelling, complex and colourful books I have ever read.
Set in near-future Nigeria, 2066 to be exact, the story introduces Kaaro, fraud/cyber investigator and government agent, and the town of Rosewater, which is built around an alien biodome. Once a year the biodome opens and heals people around it. Others have developed powers because of it. Kaaro is one of these. But despite these ‘gifts,’ the aliens’ intent is unknown, and it remains to be seen if they have come in peace, to pick up the pieces of that which man has broken, or something else entirely…
If this sounds complex, then let me tell you this: it is. It’s also a little intimidating.
There are many, MANY moving parts to Rosewater. The machine that is the manuscript is non-linear and uses three different timelines to motor the plot along. Throw into the mix all the set pieces, and you are in for a whirlwind of a ride.
Kaaro is not your typical protagonist. Nor is he typically likeable. Actually, he’s not even a reliable narrator. But that’s what makes him so compelling. His treatment of others, particularly women, didn’t sit well with me, and at times I found him hard to relate to. But then again, I reminded myself whilst reading, this is a story that includes an alien invasion and a mid-reality known as the Xenosphere, so relatable isn’t really something high on the agenda here. But compelling is – and Kaaro is certainly that.
I’d also like to add on the point of the treatment of women – the casual sexism, objectification and Kaaro’s measure of worth – that the female characters are authentic. They are believable.
Whilst that ‘take’ on Kaaro hints at it, and the summary of the plot stresses it, I want to make it perfectly clear that this is not your average science fiction thriller. This is dark. Not grimdark, but there’s a lot of violence (both physical and mental) and its an uncomfortable read. But, harking back to my earlier point, this isn’t supposed to be relatable, and how can ANY of the goings on in Rosewater be ‘within your comfort zone’? The fact that this pushes the boundaries of what sci fi today has so far explored is testament to Tade Thompson’s imagination.
I have to say though, of all the pieces of the puzzle that is Rosewater, the worldbuilding was by far my favourite. Thompson breathes as much life into his near-future Nigeria as he breathes fresh air into SF as a whole. From the settings to the inhabitants, the fixtures to the food, and the turns of phrase (I was especially blown away by the dialogue), Rosewater embraces its Nigerian roots and grows from the ground up to reach for the stars.
Be warned: Rosewater is a slow burn, at first. At least it was for me. Actually, that’s the wrong way to describe it. It’s not so much a slow burn as it is a ‘takes a while to wear in’. That’s because there’s so much going on, you have to give it time to sink in. And by the time it has, you’re swept up in the story and there’s no escaping it.
Rosewater didn’t just leave me impressed. It left me a bit intimidated (in a good way). It’s a pretty hardcore read, and I know this is something other reviewers have commented on. But when you’re playing with big ideas like this, and breaking the mould whilst you’re at it, you have to come out swinging. And that is certainly what Tade Thompson has done here.