Tade Thompson’s first contact novel Rosewater was released by a small press in 2016 and quickly generated enough attention for a Nommo Award and an acquisition by Orbit, who rereleased the book in 2018 in advance of the trilogy continuing with a pair of 2019 installments. Like so many highly-praised novels, it’s been on my radar for a couple years, but I needed an online book club to give me that final push to give it a read, and I’m glad I did.
I knew going in that Rosewater had a reputation for being a bit on the weird side, but I didn’t appreciate just how many threads were interacting. From a birds’ eye view, it’s a novel about an alien biodome appearing in Nigeria, with a sharp increase in psychic powers accompanying its arrival. But the story skips wildly in time, following various important narratives in the life of Kaaro, a “sensitive” with powerful psychic abilities, from his thieving past to the origins and present states of his current work in government intelligence and private security. The in-story present is set about ten years after the appearance of the biodome, and most of the story is set either in this present, with the appearance of unexplained phenomena in the psychic realm, or around the time the biodome appeared and Kaaro became a government agent. But we also see flashbacks to Kaaro’s childhood, and the two major timelines often skip around by months or even a year or two. It’s not especially hard to follow as you read, but it can be disorienting returning after putting the book down for a few days.
Rosewater is a difficult novel to evaluate, because there are just so many intriguing aspects to put together. Kaaro is an unusual choice for a lead character–the combination of supernatural power and amorality is frequent enough at a time when morally grey characters are a selling point, but they usually come with a little more sarcasm to make them relatable. Kaaro is incredibly terse and unambitious, being dragged through life by his own whims and pressure by the powerful groups seeking to use his ability. And yet, despite a passive and prickly central figure, Kaaro’s story is consistently compelling, and his narrative voice is clear and distinct.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that he finds himself in so many interesting situations, between theft and kidnapping, contact with aliens, tracking down an entire village that disappeared without a trace, and finding himself seduced by a butterfly woman in the psychic realm. Often, stories with frequent perspective changes find that one will drag while the others easily engage the reader, but every timeline in Rosewater is fascinating, and the disappointment at leaving a tense scene lasts only long enough to remember that the new scene is just as tense.
The one area in which I hoped for more was in pulling everything together. Rosewater certainly had a distinct ending, and every aspect of the story made sense in light of the whole. But the whole was difficult to grasp–I often found myself engaged by three or four subplots but without any real sense of where the overarching narrative was progressing. And that difficulty in gaining purchase on a bigger narrative meant that the story didn’t stick with me long after I read it. It was one of those books that’s exciting while you read it but that fades quickly afterwards.
Part of that difficulty may come from a lack of experience with the weirder fringe of speculative fiction, where there is less emphasis on narrative cohesion. But at the same time, it held this one back from being one of those books that I’ll look back on as a favorite of the year. That said, I’ll certainly be reading more of Thompson’s work, and perhaps the sequel to Rosewater, which I’ve been told stars one of the more intriguing side characters from the original novel.
Recommended if you like: weird aliens, amoral leads, African settings.
Can I use it for Bingo? Rosewater feels like a borderline case for many squares, including First Contact (technically, the aliens had landed in London a few decades before the story, but there hadn’t been much communication, and this felt like a first contact story). But it’s a clear hard mode fit for A-Z Genre Guide and easy mode for First Person POV.
Overall rating: 15 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.