Review: ROSEWATER by Tade Thompson

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

ROSEWATER is incredible. It’s a near-future biopunk sci-fi novel set in Nigeria featuring aliens, biotechnology, scientifically plausible telepaths, reanimated corpses, shady government agencies and a gritty underworld reminiscent of William Gibson’s best work. There’s a lot going on in this book and I’m so excited about all of it that it’s hard to know where to start, so I’ll lead with the big picture.

Rosewater is a Nigerian city that has grown up around the edges of an alien biodome that periodically emits a mysterious healing energy. Consequently, it’s developed into a gritty hybrid of Mecca and Lourdes, a beacon for the sick, a ramshackle, unplanned society with a teeming criminal underworld and a hive of activity for secretive organisations that want to control it.

We see the story through the eyes of Kaaro, a powerful ‘sensitive’ with a rare ability to access the xenosphere, a pseudo-psychic realm seeded by alien biotech where sensitives can access and manipulate the thoughts and perceptions of others. He works for S45, a secretive government agency involved in telepathic interrogation and counter-terrorism. Kaaro is a fascinating character, if not particularly likeable, and I was intrigued by his (justifiably) cynical take on how the world responds to alien contact.

The story is an eclectic mix of biopunk noir spy thriller, alien invasion, murder mystery and zombie horror and Tade weaves these disparate elements together masterfully in a non-linear structure that isn’t always easy to follow, but makes for an incredibly rewarding reading experience. The ‘main’ storyline takes place in 2066 and follows Kaaro as he tries to uncover the mystery of why his fellow sensitives are dying or, as he suspects, being killed off. This is interspersed with flashback chapters that slowly unravel Kaaro’s criminal past, his recruitment by S45 and development as a sensitive, along with his formative encounter with Bicycle Girl, the revolutionary activist he was tasked with hunting down.

This type of structure is difficult to pull off, but Tade nails it. It’s a masterclass in character development and worldbuilding, giving us just enough information at exactly the right moments while constantly raising more questions that compel you to carry on reading. Nothing is over-explained and there’s a stylistic similarity with Willam Gibson in that Tade throws you in at the deep end and just expects you to keep up, which makes for a thrilling and revelatory ride.

There’s also a definite Gibson-esque vibe to the society that has developed in Rosewater and as a huge Gibson fan I enjoyed this immensely. One of my favourite pieces of worldbuilding in the book were ‘the reconstructed’, humans who deliberately injure themselves in the hope of being healed in ways that biologically enhance their bodies. One character is described as having ‘latched hawk wings to cuts in his back and the xenoforms smoothed it over, probably built muscle and blood vessels to make it work’. This reminded me of the quote from Burning Chrome where Automatic Jack asserts that ‘the street finds its own uses for things’, which went on to form a central pillar of cyberpunk fiction. We don’t get much screen time with him, but one of my favourite characters was Bad Fish, an underground biohacker who does an incredible amount to organically flesh out that ‘street’ world of Lagos in 2066.

“Bad Fish fiddles with a machine. He works in a Celestial Church white robe. Olusosun used to host a thriving market with a tiny rubbish dump beside it. The dump grew and the market failed. As it covered a larger area, scavengers moved in – a growing local economy. The tech scavengers can be seen everywhere in Africa, picking bits and bobs of retrieved technology and repurposing laptops and implants, performing identity hacks, building illegal new configurations of what already exists.”

The rest of the characters are incredibly well developed as well. Femi, Kaaro’s boss at S45 is a force of nature and Aminat, with whom he has a somewhat unconventional romantic relationship, is more than she seems and Kaaro is explicitly told at one point that she “has her own story; she is not a supporting character in yours”. More mystery.

Another thing I want to note my appreciation for are the smatterings of cultural references and snippets of Nigerian history that Tade weaves into the story. There are western references ranging from Watchmen and The Dead Zone to Shakespeare and Walt Whitman, which felt like little Easter eggs every time I noticed one. I’m certain there are more that I missed and it makes me want to re-read the book again for that reason alone. More interestingly though, there are also references to Yoruba culture and snippets of Nigerian history, such as the Yoruba naming traditions (twins are often named Taiwo and Kehinde among Yoruba people) and Femi’s possession of a gun used by the Oyenusi gang in their 1972 crime spree.

I genuinely think ROSEWATER breaks new ground and Tade Thompson is at the cutting edge of science fiction right now. It’s certainly the best alien invasion book since The Three Body Problem, though I wouldn’t compare them in any other way, as this is a unique story that has blown the whole genre wide open. Tade Thompson has, without doubt, established himself as a giant of modern science fiction and I can’t wait to see where he goes next with this series.

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