More Aliens, More Politics, More Fun: Tade Thompson – The Rosewater Insurrection

One of the joys of literary awards is that they can lead you to new and interesting books. Books you would otherwise have overlooked, books you weren’t aware of, books you thought were about something completely different. Thanks to the 2020 Best Series Hugo Award, I finally picked up Rosewater by Tade Thompson and was so mesmerized that I had to continue the trilogy in what, for me, is actually a pretty prompt manner.

rosewater insurrectionTHE ROSEWATER INSURRECTION
by Tade Thompson

Published: Orbit, 2019
eBook: 400 pages
audiobook: 13 hours 13 minutes
Series: The Wormwood Trilogy #2
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: I am not an assassin. I’d like that to be clear, yet I am cleaning my gun as I start this telling, having already stripped and cleaned my rifle, with the intention of killing a man. Orders.

 

All is quiet in the city of Rosewater as it expands on the back of the gargantuan alien Wormwood. Those who know the truth of the invasion keep the secret.

The government agent Aminat, the lover of the retired sensitive Kaaro, is at the forefront of the cold, silent conflict. She must capture a woman who is the key to the survival of the human race. But Aminat is stymied by the machinations of the Mayor of Rosewater and the emergence of an old enemy of Wormwood…


Where Rosewater was told solely from the point of view of Kaaro, a sensitive and an agent for the secret government branch S45, this second book only spares a few chapters for him. Instead, we get alternating chapters from the POV of Aminat whom we’ve met in the first book and who works for S45 under Femi Alaagomeji, the mayor of Rosewater, Jack Jacques, Antony, and some more new characters. So this is a clear departure from the storytelling style of the first book but if anything, it made this volume easier to breeze through, much easier to follow (no multiple time lines), and it helped show new aspects of Rosewater and its particular style of alien invasion.

As we learned in the first book, aliens have already successfully invaded Earth using fungi which live inside humans with very little effect on us. Except some, like Kaaro, have been turned into so-called sensitives and can enter the xenosphere. Every human is a certain percentace fungus at this point, and Femi, Aminat’s S45 boss, is trying to find a way to reverse this. Aminat’s job is to find people with a particularly low percentage of fungus, when she stumbles across a woman who appears to be more alien than human, something unheard of. This woman, Alyssa, is actually experiencing severe amnesia. She doesn’t know who she is, only that she’s not the wife and mother her husband and child seem to think she is…

Meanwhile, Jack Jacques, the mayor of Rosewater, declares the city’s independence which leads to a whole shit show of conflict, both within Rosewater and in Nigeria. The president gest involved, there’s unrest in the streets, and something is happening in the alien biodome. So you could say, things get a little out of hand.

I loved Rosewater for its fresh ideas and its complicated and not super likable protagonist, but I have to say, I appreciated the multiple POVs here a lot. Not only did it give me characters to like as well as dislike, but it also offered different perspectives for the same event. When things go down in Rosewater andthe mayor is secure, watching things from a safe distance, Aminat is right in the middle of the action. It was a lot of fun reading about the same events unfolding from different points of view.
It also helps establishing the female characters as more than how Kaaro sees them. If you felt that the first book was a bit misogynistic in tone, I can’t really disagree, but I interpreted is as Kaaro being Kaaro. And Kaaro is a little fixated on women’s looks, especially boobs. Since Kaaro only gets a few chapters in The Rosewater Insurrection, women aren’t described in quite so much male gaze-y detail here, although Thompson still makes a point of letting us know how gorgeous Femi is and how everyone either wants her or wants to look like her. However, these mentions weren’t nearly as frequent as in the first book and women are the ones carrying this story forward for the most part, so I was okay with it.

As for the world building and the science ficitonal ideas – they were still great, but for a while I thought the trilogy had run out of steam. The xenosphere had already been introduced in Rosewater, a cool twist about the alien Wormwood had been revealed, and it didn’t feel like Thompson could come up with something intriguing enough to keep the world building fresh in this middle volume. Well, it may not be a completely new idea but I did love where he took this story. The type of alien and its plans in particular are a refreshing change to what we usually see in TV or the movies. Without giving things away, I can’t really tell you more details, but there’s new conflict and the alien situation becomes way more difficult than it was already.

Another thing I appreciate is how Thompson not only throws cool ideas into his story for the sake of having them there, but he incorporates them so that they each are improtant for the story he wants to tell. The xenosphere, for example, isn’t just there. It plays a vital part in the plot of this trilogy, as do the fungus, the reanimates, S45, and of course Wormwood’s own agenda. It all comes together really nicely and, in the case of Insurrecion, also quite violently, which gives us an exciting ending, filled with action. The ending, like in some of the best books, is also filled with hope. After I finished this book, I was pretty sure that the protagonists I was rooting for were doing the right thing, but if I’m completely honest, I can’t really know. In the third books, it could turn out that humanity has made a huge mistake. I just don’t know yet. Endings I can’t predict are my very favorites, so I’m super excited to read The Rosewater Redemption and see how things end for Aminat, Kaaro, and humanity in general. Seriously, it could go either way.

Best of 2020: My Favorite Books of the Year

What a year this has been. At times it felt like we fell into an actual science fiction novel. We lived (and are still living) through a pandemic, the US answered the murder of George Floyd and many others by protesting against police brutality and a broken system, the US also elected a new president, there was a terrorist attack on my city, my partner lost three family members, and we spent most of the year working from home, isolated from friends and family, and trying to keep it together somehow.

But 2020 also had its good sides and I think it’s important that we keep reminding ourselves and each other of that. People came together while staying apart in a multitude of creative ways, they stood together against violence, they used their democratic right to vote, we support and lift each other up, and those of us who are readers found solace in our hobby and the fantastical worlds into which it lets us escape.

I have read so many amazing books this year. Award season will be a horror show because how can anyone pick one favorite among so many brilliant, original, heartbreaking works? As every year, a few books stood out… except this year “a few” is a higher number than usual. This list will be rather long but it’s not my fault authors published such exceptional stories this year.


Favorite Books Published in 2020

Novels

This year has been phenomenal when it comes to SFF novels (even if everything else was pretty terrible). Granted, there are still many 2020 publications I haven’t read yet but out of the ones I have read, there was just a single one that I think of as merely good. All the rest were stellar and make me dread Hugo nomination time. Which ones do I leave off my ballot?

 

The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin is an obvious choice. Jemisin has been producing brilliant work for years and although this is her first foray into Urban Fantasy, I knew I would love it. I just didn’t know how much. When the city of New York comes to life through avatars of its burroughs, they have to come together to fight an ancient evil. That may sound simple, but  Jemisin’s way of painting the city as a living, breathing entity, turns this into a proper adventure with diverse characters, lots of social commentary, and – as always – great writing.

Alix E. Harrow‘s latest novel The Once and Future Witches took me a while to get into. Its three protagonist sisters had too many POV jumps for my taste, but Harrow found her rhythm eventuall and delivered a beautiful, heartwarming tale of sisterhood, the fight for women’s rights, and witchcraft. A love of stories and fairy tales and women working together permeates this whole book. And the way the characters are allowed to grow just made me warm and fuzzy inside. I may have started sceptical but I ended up adoring this book.

Piranesi by Susanna Clarke is the author’s long-awaited second novel after the mind-blowing Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell although it has nothing to do with that book. Piranesi lives in a labyrinth of halls, lined with statues. This book is best read without knowing anything about it because it is a riddle and a mystery, poetically told, with a twist along the way. This is clearly an accomplished, amazing short novel but the emotional resonance is definitely fading over time.

The First Sister by debut author Linden A. Lewis wasn’t a perfect book. There were some character and plot aspects that could have been done better, but ultimately, I just enjoyed reading this so very much that I mostly ignored the things that didn’t make sense. An interstellar war between Gaeans and Icarii (Earth/Mercury people and Venus/Mars people) is shown through three POVs, who are all intriguing and face very big problems. Points for diversity (including the nonbinary audiobook narrator for the nonbinary POV character) as well as setting up a world I want to return to.

Another debut was The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson. This multiverse story delivers plot twist after plot twist while we follow protagonist Cara as she visits neighbouring universes that are similar to ours but not quite the same. Her lower class status and her unrequited love for her superior doesn’t help but over the course of a very exciting Mad Max-esque plot, it’s wonderful to watch Cara grow and find her place in the world(s).

I’m so glad I loved Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia. I was in the minority finding her Gods of Jade and Shadow only okay but now I can finally join all the other fans in squeeing about her foray into gothic horror. Set in 1950s Mexico, Noemí visits the isolated house where her cousin lives with her husband. Needless to say, strange things happen there and the family is anything but welcoming. I loved the atmosphere and the setting, Noemí’s character growth and the slow burn romance… Seriously, everything about this book was amazing and I highly recommend it for someone looking for a spooky read that offers more than just scary moments or monsters.

Is anyone surprised that Martha Wells’ Network Effect made this list? No? Didn’t think so. It’s the first full length Murderbot novel and while you get much of the same stuff we’ve come to expect and love from a Murderbot story, this one goes deeper. I particularly enjoyed Murderbot’s voice and its reunion with ART. What really made this into a favorite was the tender moments between Murderbot and its humans or even Murderbot and other AI characters. As much as it’s not human, it is through its humanity that we connect to Murderbot and care for it.


Young Adult/Middle Grade

Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko is the kind of YA debut that every YA author should aspire to write. It defies the tropes I find annoying and plays with the ones I like. Young Tarisai has been raised by her mother who is only called the Lady, and she has been raised for one purpose only: To get close to the prince and then kill him. But Tarisai finds the prince totally nice and doesn’t want to kill a kid. The premise makes you assume certain things (romance between her and the prince, magical solution to this “you have to kill him” problem, etc.) but let me tell you that you will not see anything coming. Ifueko plays with the readers’ expectations, throws in a lovely found family, beautiful world building and an ending that promises an even more epic sequel.

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson seems to be a divisive book. I wouldn’t have thought I’d like a witchy story set in a puritanical village at all, but Henderson’s story telling is so engaging and her protagonist so easy to like that I couldn’t put it down. For a debut novel especially, I was impressed with the way relationships between the characters were portrayed. I’m not a big romance reader either, but I adored watching the people in this book come together slowly and bond over important things. There’s none of the cheap YA tropes here. Plus, the witches are properly scary and the curses Immanuelle has to deal with are pretty gruesome. A perfect Halloween read.


Novellas

The standout novella for me this year is P. Djèlí Clark’s Ring Shout, a book that immediately grabbed me, kept me engaged and entertained throughout, and has a powerful story to tell. I was all the more impressed with how fleshed-out the characters were and how much world building was put into such a slim volume. Clark is definitely an author to watch and I hope this novella gets him a Hugo Award.

Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings is Australian Gothic and captured me with its tark fairy tale vibe. Ignore that first over-the-top flowery chapter and just roll with it. You’ll get a tale of interconnected stories that seem very weird at first but all make sense in the end. This was an incredibly atmospheric read that shows how Jennings is not only a great illustrator but also a writer that I’m going to watch.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo doesn’t need any more recommendations. Everyone who’s read it loved it and for good reason. The way Vo chose to tell this story – in sort of flashbacks inspired by objects – is one reason it was so good. But the actual story it tells is also breathtaking. The plot itself isn’t all that epic but it makes you think about how we deal with history, whose stories get told (and whose should get told) and what happens to the people on the sidelines of a war.


Favorite Audiobooks

I swear it is a coincidence that all my favorite audiobooks of the year are written and narrated by Black authors and narrators. I didn’t even realize it until I listed them up here. My challenge to read more Black authors definitely contributed to me picking these books up, but this is where I want to share the amazing work narrators did with these stories.

N. K. Jemisin’s The City We Became was one of my top books of the year but the audiobook turned it into something else. Not only does Robin Miles do a brilliant job when it comes to different voices and conveying emotions, but this audiobook also has a few sound effects and music mixed in. Don’t worry, it only happens occasionally but it did help me get immersed in the story. I would have loved this as a paper book as well but if you’re still unsure which version to go with, definitely pick up the audiobook.

In The Salt Roads by Nalo Hopkinson, we follow three very different female characters living in very different time periods and settings. I never thought I would love this book as much as I did but I should have known better. Hopkinson effortlessly weaves magic and Caribbean myth into her tale, and there’s even a real historical figure in this one. Bahni Turpin switches characters beautifully, which includes accents and timbre, and really helped paint a picture of this story in my mind.

Rivers Solomon’s An Unkindness of Ghosts is a challenging book for any narrator to do but Cherise Boothe did a brilliant job. Nnot only does she have to switch between characters of different genders, protagonist Aster is also neurodiverse and thus delivers certain lines in a manner that seems almost cold to other people. Yet Boothe managed to make Aster lovable while maintaining her speech pattern. It’s also just a great story.

Rosewater by Tade Thompson is a difficult book to follow because of its jumping around in time. Not having a paper book to read along makes this even harder, but Bayo Gbadamosi did his very best to help us keep the timelines and characters straight. This very different alien “invasion” story may not have the most likable lead character but I found it enthralling from beginning to end and I can’t wait to find out how the trilogy ends.


Favorite Books Published pre-2020

Without a doubt, the three books that touched me the most in 2020 were Doomsday Book by Connie Willis, Muse of Nightmares by Laini Taylor and The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. I’m noticing a concerning similarity in my favorite books this year. Almost all of them managed to make me cry…

I read Doomsday Book right whent he first lockdown started in Austria and when it hit home all around the world that this pandemic was, indeed, a global thing that meant nothing would be as it was before. The book is about an incredibly realistic epidemic (I could literally compare the fictional government’s reaction to real world goverments) as well as the plague. Time-travelling historian Kivrin visits the Middle Ages but things don’t go exactly as planned. Connie Willis made me fall in love with her characters only to put them through hell. At the same time, she shows the best of humanity and the reason there is always hope. I cried a lot reading this book.

The Sparrow was something else entirely. A first-contact story that sends Jesuit priests and scientists to an alien planet in order to find the creatures whose singing has been received on Earth. This beautiful tale of a found family sets you up for disaster right from the start. Told in two time lines, you follow the mission itself as well as its aftermath through the eyes of sole survivor Emilio Sandoz. I’ll be honest, I felt like crying throughout the entire book because it’s just got that tone to it. But by the end I thought I had prepared myself for certain things. I was not prepared. This story had me sobbing by the end and left me with a massive book hangover.

Much more hopeful, albeit also dystopian, was An Unkindness of Ghosts. This was one of my five star predictions and I must say, I totally nailed it. Aster lives on a generation ship that is organized vaguely like the Antebellum South. Social injustice, terrible conditions for the people on the lower decks, and Aster’s unusual personality made this an engaging read. Add to that fantastic world building, a mystery to be solved, and Aster’s relationship with her friends and colleague, and you’ve got a book that will stick with you. Rivers Solomon effortlessly adds discussions of gender and sexuality, neurodiversity and class difference into an exciting tale which – thankfully – didn’t leave me crying at the end, but rather with a sense of hope and satisfaction.

Robin Hobb’s Fool’s Fate was long overdue. If you’ve read the Tawny Man trilogy you can guess why I stopped reading after The Golden Fool. I was a little worried that I had forgotten all the important plot points but Robin Hobb is a skilled writer who reminded me of everything important in the first chapter, all without info dumping. It was like I had never left. And so I followed these characters I already loved onto a quest that promised doom for at least one of them. I did cry when certain events came to pass but Hobb managed to deliver an ending that felt both realistic and hopeful – something that’s not exactly the norm for Fitz. No matter how many years pass between books or which series you follow, you just can’t go wrong with Robin Hobb. She is a master of the genre.

Now Kindred by Octavia E. Butler was only my second Butler book but it made me want to go and read everything she’s written. This story of a young Black woman who is randomly transported back in time to a slave plantation does everything you expect plus a little more. Butler doesn’t waste time exploring the time travel mechanisms of her story – they don’t matter – but rather focuses on character and setting. Dana suddenly has to deal with a time when people like her were seen as little more than animals, so this book is exactly as hard to read as you think. It was a powerful story, though, that showed all characters as faceted, believable human beings, as well as highlighting aspects of slavery that especially impact women. This was not a fun read but I can’t recommend it highly enough!

I’ve had some starting problems with Laini Taylor but this year, I gave The Daughter of Smoke and Bone Trilogy another chance and promptly fell into it and read all three books. Daughter of Smoke and Bone still wasn’t a complete hit but worked better for me on the re-read. Days of Blood and Starlight showed that Laini Taylor can expand her fictional world without losing sight of her protagonists, and Dreams of Gods and Monsters brought the tale to its epic, bittersweet conclusion. What I love most about this series is the feeling of myth and lore and history that pervades it all. Even though we learn a lot about Chimaera and Seraphim, it always feels like there’s more hiding just around the corner. The relationships in this story were amazing, both the romantic ones as well as the friendships and found families that are made along the way. Oh, and of course, it’s written in beautiful, lyrical prose.

I also used this year to finish the Strange the Dreamer duology by picking up Muse of Nightmares and, boy, did that book rip my heart out. Again, Laini Taylor expands an already intriguing fantasy world and shows us just how much more there is out there. She also adds some new characters that put me through an emotional roller coaster. What I love most about these two books is probably the villains – or lack thereof. There are antagonists but as we get to see the world through their eyes, it becomes clear they’re not Evil. For the entirety of the book, I was sure things would end in tragedy and there couldn’t possibly be a happy end. And I’m not saying things end all that happily (at least not for everyone) but again, there is a tone of hope as well as the satisfaction of having read a complete story. The prose is otherworldly. Serioulsy, I could put quotes from this duology all over my walls.

Francis Hardinge’s Deeplight swept me off my feet a little unexpectedly. I knew Hardinge was a good writer with very original ideas but then she just goes and delivers a YA novel with truly complicated characters and relationships, set in a world with dead underwater gods, with a deaf character, multiple twists, and an exciting plot? Count me in for more Francis Hardinge because this was a pretty perfect YA novel if you ask me. I’m still thinking about some adventurous moments from this book and then I’m impressed yet again at how well constructed it was.
The Lodestar Award went to Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer which I also adored, so shoutout to that book.

Descendant of the Crane by Joan He was a twisty emotional rollercoaster that definitely stands out from other YA novels in that it doesn’t focus on the romance, puts its protagonist through seriously difficult choices, and delivers great solutions to its core mysteries. If you want a fast-paced book that nonetheless takes time to develop its characters, pick this up. Unfortunately, it ends a bit abruptly and as of today, there’s no sequel in sight. Here’s to hoping we’ll get one eventually.


I don’t know about you, but I’m going to call this a pretty successful reading year. I don’t think I’ve ever had this many favorites, especially among the new publications. Many of these books will end up on my Hugo nomination ballot – I’ll post it when the time comes. And who knows, until then I may have caught up on even more awesome books.

If you’ve posted a best of the year list, let me know in the comments. I love looking through other people’s favorite reads of the year. I’m especially interested in 2020 publications that I might have missed or should prioritize. 🙂

Aliens, Spies, and Secrets: Tade Thompson – Rosewater

I’m so glad I picked this up. I’ve been hearing about this trilogy ever since the first book came out but reviews were all over the place. Some people loved it, some hated it, some said it was too difficult to understand – that’s exactly the right mix to get me super interested and want to form an opinion of my own. It was difficult to read and it’s definitely only the start of a longer story but, boy, did I love it!

ROSEWATER
by Tade Thompson

Published: Apex Book Company, 2016
Audiobook: 13 hours 30 minutes
Paperback: 432 pages
Series: The Wormwood Trilogy #1
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: I’m at the Integrity Bank job for forty minutes before the anxieties kick in.

Tade Thompson’s Rosewater is the start of an award-winning, cutting edge trilogy set in Nigeria, by one of science fiction’s most engaging new voices.
Rosewater is a town on the edge. A community formed around the edges of a mysterious alien biodome, its residents comprise the hopeful, the hungry and the helpless—people eager for a glimpse inside the dome or a taste of its rumored healing powers.
Kaaro is a government agent with a criminal past. He has seen inside the biodome, and doesn’t care to again—but when something begins killing off others like himself, Kaaro must defy his masters to search for an answer, facing his dark history and coming to a realization about a horrifying future.

This is a crazy book with many ideas, several timelines, different planes of existence, and an interesting cast of characters. We follow Kaaro, a former thief turned government agent, who is also infected with xenoforms that let him enter the xenosphere – a sort of parallel world of thoughts. He can read people’s thoughts and feelings which is pretty useful for his secret work for the government agency Section 45. His day job is working at a bank, trying to deter other sensitives (others like him) from reading people’s passcodes or bank data from their minds. He does this by crowding the xenosphere with unimportant thoughts, usually reading a classic novel.

Whew! That’s just the basic introduction and you can see there’s already so much packed in there. So I have to agree with the people that say this isn’t an easy book to read. The writing style is great, the prose flows smoothly, but keeping everything straight in your head, keeping up with what happened to Kaaro during which time period – it takes a bit of work.
His first person narrative jumps between the present, 2066, and the past, mostly 2055 but sometimes other times in between. Kaaro lives in Rosewater, a city that has grown around an alien biodome that sometimes grants healing powers to those in its vicinity and which is also responsible for sensitives.

Discovering just what this science fictional future Nigeria is like was so much fun. Again, it takes some work to keep things straight in your head while you read this book but it is utterly rewarding. On the one hand, I wanted to learn more about who Kaaro is. When we first meet him, he seems somewhat depressed, not really knowing where to go with his life. When he is set up with beautiful young Aminat, he has something to hold on to again. Through the flashback chapters, we learn more about his criminal past, about how Rosewater came to be, and about how he started working for S45. I’m keeping all the details out and just letting you know that the fog that you may feel at the beginning of this book will slowly lift.

There was very little I didn’t like in this book. The cast of characters is interesting and varied, Kaaro himself is a diffulct and flawed protagonist but I actually really liked him. He is strangely focused on women’s looks and highly sexualizes any woman he comes into contact with but, in general, he’s a good guy who grows throughout the novel.
I also enjoyed the writing style. With Kaaro’s trips into the xenosphere, things can get a bit confusing because – as you can imagine – a world of thought doesn’t exactly follow Earth rules. In the xenosphere, Kaaro is a gryphon, physics don’t apply, but you can still run into all sorts of danger.
Probably the most intriguing part was the whole alien thing, though. The way this novel plays out, people have just come to accept the various changes alien life has brought to Earth. The biodome is visited by many, especially the old, the sick, or people who think they are broken in some way and hope to be “fixed”. The existance of Sensitives is also well-known by everyone. In order to ward them off, people use anti-fungal cream and techniques like Kaaro’s at his bank job.

I don’t really want to tell you anything about the plot (or plots, plural) because part of the fun here is finding out how everything is connected and how it all fits together at the end. In the prestent, Kaaro discovers that Sensitives seem to be dying and he’s trying to figure out what is happening to them. Are they being murdered? Does it have to do with the xenoforms and do they give them all some sort of disease? In the flashback chapters, we see some of Kaaro’s previous missions, some of which give us glimpses into politics and the alien biodome. I admit it can feel like reading several separate stories at times, but by the end, everything comes together and we get the whole puzzle. And the puzzle is just the beginning of a probably much larger tale – this is only part one of a trilogy, after all.

The nature of this book makes it very hard to talk about. It is best to be experience. I used an Audible credit for the audiobook and I can highly recommend it. It’s narrated by Bayo Gbadamosi and he does a fantastic job! Not only was it nice to hear how some of the names are pronounced but Gbadamosi also creates so much atmosphere. When Kaaro is freaked out by something, it absolutely shows in the narrative, giving me a sense of anxiety and completely immersing me in the story.

I highly enjoyed this book and have books two and three lined up and ready to go. It’s like Thompson took certain ideas and tropes that may have been there before but combined and twisted them into something that feels utterly fresh and new. It has a noir feeling to it, it’s definitely weird, it’s science fiction, and it’s about a man figuring out what to do with his life. And also there’s aliens… Mashing so many things into one book shouldn’t work but it totall does. I am hooked and can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy and anything else Tade Thompson writes!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent