A Sharp Noir-ish Thriller: The Rosewater Insurrection by Tade Thompson

Award-winning author Tade Thompson’s Rosewater was first published in the US by small press outfit Apex in 2016. I reviewed it here last year, when it was republished by Orbit as the first novel in a trilogy. The Rosewater Insurrection is the second novel in that trilogy, and although it’s as interesting and hard-edged as the first volume, it’s a very different book to its predecessor.

Rosewater focussed on Kaaro, a sensitive working for the Nigerian special services, whose ability to read and affect minds came about as a result of his affinity with the “xenosphere.” The xenosphere is a creation of the alien organism known as Wormwood, which emerged in Nigeria in the middle of the 21st century and manifests as an impenetrable dome which opens infrequently. At those openings, things occur that are impossible for human science: the dead return to a sort of zombie life, the seriously injured can be healed—or changed. Wormwood’s ultimate purpose remained mysterious, but most of the security services are convinced that it is a threat to the future of humanity. The town of Rosewater grew up around Wormwood, and depends on it in a number of ways.

The Rosewater Insurrection takes the focus off Kaaro, who has only a very small part to play in this novel, and redirects it onto a number of other characters. In this novel, Jack Jacques, the mayor of Rosewater, is pressed into declaring the city’s independence as a free state by the former head of the special services, Femi Alaagomeji. Aminat, Kaaro’s lover and a scientist and agent with the special services—reporting directly to Femi—is dispatched to investigate a woman who has a uniquely xenoform count: her body has been mostly replaced by alien cells while still appearing human. Alyssa Sutcliffe, that woman, no longer remembers her human life, and may be the forerunner of an alien invasion that seeks to replace all human life. Meanwhile, another alien lifeform—a plant of some kind—has taken root in Rosewater and is attacking Wormwood, rendering Jacques’ plan of relying on the dome’s protective instincts as part of Rosewater’s defence against the national government… somewhat lacking.

When it comes to big ideas, weird science, futurism and the vastness and multitude of the alien stuff crammed into Rosewater—the city and the books—Thompson excels: he builds a world full of dizzying, terrifying marvels and the compelling necessities of the quotidian. Rosewater is a fantastically interesting city, and Wormwood, a fascinating device with which to interrogate humanity and human nature: this is a novel engaged in conversation with the classic science fiction topoi both of alien contact and of the colonisation of worlds by technologically superior visitors. But these technologically superior visitors may be irrevocably changed by what they find. With setting, with politics, with the grand scale and its interaction with smaller individuals—there, Thompson’s at his best.

It’s not his fault that I find The Rosewater Insurrection’s characters to fall on a spectrum between the unlikable and the insufferable. It may be that my lack of concentration is at fault, or it may be that Thompson and I value different things in storytelling: The Rosewater Insurrection has a similar noirish thriller tone to its predecessor, and one of the hallmarks of noir has always been (for me, at least) its difficult-to-like protagonists, with their emotional distance and their lack of empathy outside a limited circle. I don’t enjoy spending time with most of The Rosewater Insurrection’s characters, apart from Aminat, and although I find these characters and their interaction with the alien and the everyday interesting, apparently right now interesting is not quite enough for me.

Like Rosewater, The Rosewater Insurrection is sharp and full of hard edges. It is fast and tense and fascinating, and I really want to like it. But I don’t. I admire its craft and its sheer panache, its explosive approach to worldbuilding and its willingness to fuck shit up, but I don’t enjoy it.

That’s about me, not about the novel, though. If this is the kind of science fiction thriller you like, then The Rosewater Insurrection is a good book for you.

The Rosewater Insurrection is available from Orbit.

Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.

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