Star Rating: **** 4/5
Author: Tade Thompson
Review by Silicon.
Between meeting a boy who bursts into flames, alien floaters that want to devour him, and a butterfly woman who he has sex with when he enters the xenosphere, Kaaro’s life is far from the simple one he wants. But he left simple behind a long time ago when he was caught stealing and nearly killed by an angry mob. Now he works for a government agency called Section 45, and they want him to find a woman known as Bicycle Girl. And that’s just the beginning.
An alien entity lives beneath the ground, forming a biodome around which the city of Rosewater thrives. The citizens of Rosewater are enamored by the dome, hoping for a chance to meet the beings within or possibly be invited to come in themselves. But Kaaro isn’t so enamored. He was in the biodome at one point and decided to leave it behind. When something begins killing off other sensitives like himself, Kaaro defies Section 45 to search for an answer, facing his past and coming to a realization about a horrifying future.
This is a brilliantly imaginative, unique, and game-changing scifi novel. If you like glorious mindfucks of scifi novels, this is the book for you. It's one of the most original scifi books I've ever read.
I received an ARC from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.
Imagine a world not-too-far in our future--Earth 2066. Aliens have made contact and what's more? They've decided to live here too. The humans? Don't know why. We don't know their purpose, their desires, their needs. We can't stop them so we do what we've always done as a species: adapt to the weird new world that we live in, and survive.
Xenomorphs--aliens--fill the air, granting some people strange powers such as the ability to read minds. Kaaro, our main character, is one with such a power. By day, he uses his abilities to protect banks from mind-reading hackers. But he's actually an agent of the governmental secret service group S45.
Kaaro works at his day job, performs interrogations, finds people with unerring skill, and goes about life with a bland disinterest. Until he meets and falls for Aminat, a woman who is strong, independent, and keeps her own counsel. Kaaro doesn't know her secrets but there's shadowy undertones, to the point where his boss warns him off the relationship. But Kaaro refuses to listen.
At the same time, there's even weirder stuff happening in the world, and this time it's dangerous. Sensitives like Kaaro start dying horribly of mysterious diseases. S45 doesn't want him to investigate but Kaaro knows he must. Why are the sensitives dying? Is it human-borne, are their bodies giving up--or is it something more sinister?
This is not a light read. For me, the nonlinear timescale really threw me for the first few chapters--I had to keep checking the year marked and I had a hard time figuring out when we were in Kaaro's life. But once I got into the flow, it worked out. Rosewater manages to make each vignette of Kaaro's life interesting and, more importantly, relevant. Thompson weaves all the complex threads of this story through the vignettes in such a way that they feel very much like one cohesive story. The ending brings everything together in a satisfying, if not the most happy way.
I really, really loved the aliens. I love the bizarre way they interact with the world--like microorganisms in a huge network, permeating and infiltrating everything. Society, human interactions, the setting, the story itself. Even when they are passively beneficial, there's an element of unsettling otherness. I liked how Thompson absolutely did not make them one-dimensional and how the humans are very realistically quite ignorant of them. They don't know what the aliens' purpose is, nor what they're made of, nor how intelligent they are, or how and why they arrived. They try, as we would, to understand them scientifically, but the aliens are just, well, too alien. And they're not interested in giving up their secrets until they decide to.
I very much enjoyed how Thompson centers Nigeria in this novel. In fact, this is a novel utterly devoid the usual over-reaching shadow of America--the US has gone dark, for unknown reasons. We hear about events taking place in the UK and other parts of the world, but this book ultimately is not about the West.
The vast majority of the characters are black and Nigerian, including all the main and secondary characters. Furthermore, Thompson includes several LGBTQIA+ characters such as Kaaro's mentors, a gay couple who are the first to take Kaaro in after his family violently casts him out for stealing. However: take note that in this Nigeria of the future, laws prohibiting homosexuality still play a huge role.
There are multiple strong women secondary characters--Bola, Kaaro's friend. Aminat, his love interest who is much more than just that (there's a line in the book where someone checks Kaaro, reminding him that Aminat is the protagonist of her own story, not a support to his--I cheered. Also I really fucking want to read Aminat's story now). There's Femi, Kaaro's superior who is a leader in every sense of the word--strong, decisive, puts up with no shit, masterfully handles Kaaro and others around her to get what she and the government wants.
In all honesty, I cared more about the secondary characters than Kaaro himself. He's not an instantly likable character: apathetic, reticent, and has a childish streak of insolence, especially directed at his superior. I understand part of his insistence on being continually insolent to Femi, but the added gender imbalance just irritated me. Occasionally his interactions with women skirted the edge, or stepped over the line of disrespect. However, he is intensely loyal to friends to the point where he risks his life to save them, intelligent, curious, and quietly independent. I thought he treated Aminat with respect, as a whole other intelligent person with her own life and aspirations he could not pry into.
But to have seen Aminat's story, or Femi's--those are the stories I would really love to read. By the end I was okay with Kaaro and I wanted him to succeed. But in the beginning I wasn't entirely on his side and it was a slow development over the course of the novel for me to go from mild dislike to lukewarm.