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Rosewater by Tade Thompson

Published in small press edition in 2016; published by Orbit on September 18, 2018

An alien blob landed in London in 2012, wiping out part of the city and releasing a bunch of microorganisms into the biosphere. The government decided to call the blob Wormwood. The British attacked Wormwood because humans always attack what they don’t understand. They succeeded only in driving Wormwood underground, where it tunneled itself around the planet.

Eventually, a biodome grew out of the ground in Nigeria. A donut-shaped city developed around the biodome. The dome opens once a year, emitting microbes that cure bystanders of diseases, disabilities, and some mental impairments. Sometimes the cure takes; other times it causes problems down the road. Some people seem to be rebuilt in grotesque ways. The microbes also raise the dead, but the aliens apparently don’t appreciate, or don’t care, that animated corpses are zombies and not really welcomed by the living. Fortunately, Rosewater is not a zombie novel.

The planet has been laced with something like a fungus that allows some humans, dubbed sensitives, to tap into a psychic link comprised of fungal filaments and neurotransmitters. The tiny filaments attach to nerve endings and are constantly transmitting information to a worldmind. Sensitives can access the worldmind, also known as the xenosphere, which exists in the realm of quantum physics. Which means it is cool but too complicated to understand.

So that’s the background. The story jumps around in time as it follows Kaaro. Kaaro is a sensitive. He used to be a thief because he could sense where people hid their valuables. That career did not go well after his mother kicked him out of her house and a mob tried to set him on fire. Later he was trained by a government agency called S45 and developed the ability to probe minds. Now he uses his abilities to augment a firewall, protecting customers who conduct banking transactions from black hat sensitives who try to pluck identifying information from their thoughts. His second job is for S45, which uses his talents to pry into the minds of prisoners.

Working with or against Kaaro, depending on the year, are two women: Femi, who runs S45, and Oyin Da (a/k/a Bicycle Girl), who knows how to enter different dimensions in time and space. Another woman in Kaaro’s life is Aminat, his girlfriend in 2066. It is too simplistic to say that he is transformed by love, but Aminat at least forces him to look at himself, to deal with his guilt (or to examine why he does not feel more guilt), and to confront his demons.

The chapters shift between 2055 (then), 2066 (now), and some interludes between then and now. In 2055, Kaaro is looking into a village that vanished, attributed by some to tribal genocide, a theory that does not explain the absence of bodies.

The time jumps impose a burden on the reader to keep track of the story’s pieces and reorder them chronologically so that they make sense. Some of the shifts are so abrupt and untethered that they breed momentary confusion. There’s nothing wrong with burdening a reader and Rosewater isn’t nearly as complex as The Sound and the Fury (chapter headings and dates give the Rosewater reader some help), but readers who have poor memories might want to opt for a digital version so they can quickly jump back and refresh their understanding of what happened in each time frame.

Rosewater has a good bit of intellectual appeal but it falls short on emotional appeal. I like the concept and the background detail, but the character of Kaaro failed to resonate with me. I had little interest in whether he lived or died, succeeded or failed, had success with his love interests or fell on his face. The plot is intriguing and, as the opening novel of a trilogy, Rosewater offered enough substance to whet my interest in the next installment.


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