Rosewater by Tade Thompson, Orbit / Hatchette, 2018
The Rosewater Insurrection by Tade Thompson, Orbit / Hatchette, 2019
The Rosewater Redemption by Tade Thompson, Orbit / Hatchette, 2019
“Trilogy” is not a sales hook for me. My knee-jerk reaction is that I’m likely to be spending a great deal of time with characters who will become tiresome and with stories that grow boring long before closure. It doesn’t matter much that the author of The Wormwood Trilogy also disdains the idea. What counts is that Tade Thompson has produced a work that kept my interest across two sizeable volumes. The third volume is to be published in the Autumn of 2019 and I’m very much looking forward to its release.
First, a thumbnail sketch of the author: Thompson was born in the United Kingdom to Nigerian parents. The family moved back to Nigeria in 1976. Thompson returned to the United Kingdom in 1998. He studied medicine and social anthropology and finally specialized in psychiatry. He’s also something of a compulsive writer.
While Thompson has written horror and fantasy as well as science fiction, The Wormwood Trilogy belongs firmly in the science fiction corner of the general speculative fiction genre. The main plot device is the old war-of-the-worlds-alien-invasion scenario (hello, H. G. Wells!) but in this instance the invasion is largely non-violent except that the aliens, on occasion, do pretty much whatever they need to do without much effective resistance from humans. But who is fighting? However disruptive it may be, the alien presence has set off a technological revolution and provides almost magical additions to human society around the alien enclaves: healing illness, for example, though the results sometimes resembles comic mistranslations. Rosewater, indeed, is a city that has grown up around an enigmatic alien enclave in rural Nigeria, much like a shanty town around a port. The alien invasion is not by force of arms but by the gradual displacement of Earth’s native biology and ecology, a process at once beneficial and existential, gradually turning Earth into a version of “Home” and ending life, particularly humans, As We Know It. You can indeed take this as a metaphor for colonialism as experienced by the colonized.
There are other familiar plot devices. Thompson borrows heavily from William Gibson’s imagery of the web, though by Thompson’s mid-21st Century the web has been mostly supplanted another info-space (not to mention the info-space brought by the aliens). Thompson also throws in secret societies, secret and somewhat siloed government bureaucracies, zombies, surveillance and hyper-competent individuals. He even comes up with a MacGuffin in the second volume.
One of the hyper-competent is Kaaro. I would describe Kaaro as a Nigerian slacker living in Rosewater. The first volume, Rosewater, is told in first person by Kaaro. First person story telling is always of interest. How will the author handle it? To whom is the narrator speaking? To a chronicler who is or pretends to be the author? To a general audience, breaking the “fourth wall”? To the narrator himself? In this case, it’s probably the last, but I’m not sure. Kaaro may also be a weak spot in the storytelling. If you actively dislike Kaaro then you may have some difficulty finishing the first volume, although it is written with very short chapters around multiple flashback stories, making a long book bite-sized.
Thompson says that he is assiduous plotting the books. Even so, there are plot holes suggesting that his vision of Rosewater and its universe changed in the writing of it.
The second volume, The Rosewater Insurrection, demotes Kaaro to a secondary character. Several secondary characters from the first volume become primary characters, along with a few new characters. It is told almost exclusively in third person, mostly in the present of the year 2066, and it retains the short chapter format, each chapter following a particular character. But if Kaaro was telling the story in the first volume, who is the omniscient narrator in the second?
It was surprise to me that I was okay with the politician, Mayor of Rosewater, Jack Jacques. Politics and politicians are difficult to portray these days because so many readers view politics, if at all, as spectators. Artists can tell their audience anything about politics and the profession of it, the more cynical the more plausible it seems. But in The Rosewater Insurrection, the role of gossip in politics and obsessive grooming and self-presentation were close enough to keep me happy.
In my old age, I complain and complain about genre fiction and how it uses, uses, and reuses so many common plot devices, characters, and clichés. That Thompson does this with some care and thoughtfulness would not exempt him from my whining except that readers here in the States have an additional bonus. The story takes place in Nigeria, a future Nigeria that has to be recognizable even if still foreign to a Nigerian of 2019. To a Nigerian, this might bring into play a whole series of familiar plot elements and characters – not to mention ethnic stereotypes – but to most American readers, this will be fresh air.
I’m reduced to complaining that the final volume won’t be out until October…
For more information
I’d really recommend this interview of Tade Thompson by Nick Wood at Short Story Day Africa.
Jessica FitzPatrick had an insightful review of Rosewater at the Los Angeles Review of Books.