The Kinokuniya bookstore above Shinjuku Station in Tokyo has become one of my favorite stores for its excellent selection of English-language books. They have a really good sci-fi/fantasy section, and on a recent visit, they had a whole rack dedicated to recent award winners where I noticed the winner of a new award for African speculative fiction — the Nommo Award — and was intrigued enough to buy a copy.
And let me just say that if there’s a better science fiction book this year than Tade Thompson’s Rosewater, then I want to read it, because this book was freaking fantastic.
The year is 2066, and it’s been several years since a mysterious tentacled dome suddenly appeared in the Nigerian countryside. The area surrounding the dome has become something of a mecca, as crowds swarm in once a year to be healed when a brief opening appears in the dome. In the years before the dome appeared, some people discovered they could hear other people’s thoughts. Kaaro was one of these so-called Sensitives, discovering his abilities as a boy but unable to resist temptation, falling into the easy life of a thief until his mother learned what he’d done and turned him over to a mob.
Of course, the government is both interested in and suspicious of the Sensitives, and when Kaaro is caught in a trap set by a covert government agency, his only real choice is to join them. He undergoes intensive training to learn how to take full advantage of his abilities and becomes something of a mind control mercenary, called in when all other options have failed. His own boss is afraid to meet him in person and gives him as little information as possible, even when Kaaro learns that others like him are dying.
While waiting for assignments, Kaaro works at mundane security jobs, one of which is to sit atop a bank tower, day after day, reading books with a team of Sensitives, flooding the surrounding area with words create a firewall to keep criminals from stealing customer information. I mention this mainly to provide context for my favorite line in the whole book. “We return to the firewall, where we read Ayn Rand. I fucking hate Ayn Rand.” I snarfed so hard when I read that line that I couldn’t breathe.
The storyline is nonlinear, jumping between different time points and geographic locations, but the chapters are given descriptive titles that helped to mitigate any confusion. I’ll admit I got lost a few times, though never for long, and never to the point of frustration. One of the pull quotes on the back cover compared this book to Arrival, and while I agree, I found it much more similar in content and tone to Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy and Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World. There’s a blend of the familiar and strange, and that contrast adds to the unsettling atmosphere. The world is much the same but has new rules, and while everyone tries to figure out what they are, weirder and wilder things happen around them.
Like Vandermeer and Harkaway, Thompson doesn’t rest on his fantastical world-building. He gives us characters with complicated perspectives and motivations and a layered story that follows through on its early promise. I had no idea where it was going, not because I couldn’t keep track of everything but simply because Thompson refuses to be predictable or to provide easy answers. He’s written an absolute barnburner of a book. It’s compulsively readable and never boring. It’s smart and exciting and weird and most of all fun. I finished it three weeks ago, and my pulse is still racing as I write this review. Rosewater is one of my favorite books of the year, and Tade Thompson feels like the real deal, a megastar in the making.