Rosewater has taunted me from my bookshelf for the past year. Handed to me by QTL Founder Andrew in one of his multi annual book distributions, it sat there slowly seducing me with its elegant cover. I knew nothing about it other than it garnered a lot of praise within review circles. “I’ll get to it one day,” I’d say to myself every time I looked at it, picking instead another ARC with a deadline, or a book I felt I needed to get out of the way. Until one day, I decided to venture into Rosewater’s unknown maze, to get lost in something I had no notion of beyond it being a first contact story that took place in Nigeria. Upon finishing Rosewater, I immediately ordered the next two books, their covers gleaming at me and taunting me with the horrors that awaited me inside them. Even during quarantine I tried to stick to a schedule, staying on top of the ARCs I requested, knowing that somewhere Wormwood was waiting for me. If you haven’t heard of it, or know very little of it beyond the review hype, let me tell you the Wormwood Trilogy, by Tade Thompson, is a delightful descent into madness with pitch perfect atmosphere, memorable characters and astonishing worldbuilding. That’s not even to mention the absolutely batshit plot developments, science fiction wondery, and the biting critiques that litter the pages of every book while remaining an undeniably fun experience to behold.
The Wormwood Trilogy takes place in a near future around 2062. Decades after a massive biodome appeared and ravaged London, a second Dome appeared in Nigeria. Upon discovering that the Dome provided electricity, and once a year opened its doors to heal those standing in front of it, people began to build the city of Rosewater around it. Due to the presence of these unexplained phenomena, the United States has shut itself off from the rest of the world and no one has heard a single peep from them since the 2010s. Rosewater begins the trilogy with the exploits of Kaaro, a man with a criminal past and a special ability that appeared after the Dome materialized. Kaaro is a “sensitive”, meaning he can read people’s minds and emotions and connect with other sensitives on a psychic level. During the day, he acts as part of a psychic firewall for the banking system, and he moonlights as an agent for the government of Nigeria. Most of the time he is brought in by his boss, Femi, for more overt forms of interrogation (aka questioning after torture). Kaaro is one of the most powerful sensitives, and he’s very good at using his powers, despite being lazy and recalcitrant at times. Soon, Kaaro finds out that other sensitives are starting to die mysterious deaths, and he may be next.
I will only really explain the plot of the first book because going into Wormwood as blind as possible makes the whole series a delight. Even the back-cover blurbs don’t give much away, throwing the reader for early loops. Instead, I want to focus on what makes each book great on its own, then delve a little into the series as a whole and how Thompson makes everything fit so well together.
The first book, Rosewater, reads like a murder mystery. The book flips back and forth between the present moment and Kaaro’s past, providing snapshots of how Kaaro’s powers grew, and how he learned to use them. The plot is incredibly well paced, feeling like you rowed your little boat into a massive whirlpool. It starts slow, luring you in without giving too much a hint at what lies ahead. Before you know it, you can’t escape, and the only way to truly end the swirling madness is to meet it in the middle.This is amplified by Thompson’s writing style in Rosewater, as the story is told through Kaaro’s eyes with with noir-esque prose. The women have a sense of mystery to them, and even with his abilities Kaaro is not sure how to approach them. Not to mention Femi has ways to avoid him and is able to block his intuitions altogether, presenting herself as always cold, always in control. The past and present sections perform an intimate dance, never fully revealing their purpose or relevance to each other until later in the story, and the maze starts to make sense. There is an ever present creeping sensation through the novel, as if you, the reader, are being tracked as well, as if the information Kaaro is delivering to you through his narration is enough for you to be a target with him, and it never lets up. The conclusion is astounding in every sense of the word as every piece of information past and present feels relevant, as if it was all right there in front of you this whole time. I still get chills and the hairs raise on my skin whenever I think about it.
Rosewater Insurrection does not disappoint either. If Rosewater is the whirlpool, Insurrection is all of the debris pulled in and spit back out as the whirlpool implodes. Kaaro is no longer the sole narrator, and while he doesn’t take a backseat, there are bigger players in the game. The political and social implications that follow the conclusion of the first book become the main focus here. We’re introduced to more people who have a stake in understanding what the Dome is and what purpose it might serve. The history of the city of Rosewater begins to be revealed, along with meditations on the colonial history of Nigeria. Thompson juggles a lot in Insurrection and in a lot of ways makes it look easy. The atmosphere is far more intense as we’re no longer just in Kaaro’s head. Not everyone has the playful pulpy outlook he has, and it really highlights Thompson’s ability to shift tone and give his characters interior lives. Thompson drags you into the story with larger than life personalities and dangerous games of political and espionage chicken as Rosewater begins a path towards independence from Nigeria. I found myself fascinated by the intrigue, unsure of who was right and who was wrong as everything became shades of grey mixed with the colors of the rainbow. Thompson deftly manages to make you feel both righteous and guilty at the same time as characters take on the fight of their lives and risk who they thought they were. Insurrection is a story in its own right, and while it does help to set up the plot of Redemption, Thompson avoids the typical middle book slump through sharp characterization, an acceleration of pace and a focusing of his larger themes.
Rosewater Redemption is an astonishing finale. Considering it had to follow both Rosewater and Insurrection, I was honestly taken aback by how hard Thompson comes out swinging. Loose threads left dangling from the previous books are picked up and yanked on. Consequences of previous actions bite back in full as characters reckon with their choices on a personal and political scale. It’s hard to describe Redemption without spoiling its plot, but thematically it is the most cutting of the three books, especially when it comes to the narrative of colonization and self determination. Thompson does not flinch, and Redemption is all the better for it.
On the whole, Wormwood is an incredibly fresh take on the first contact sub-genre. Thompson has incredible ideas that are interwoven into entrancing stories filled with rich, vibrant characters. Thompson performs amazing feats with his shifts in perspective giving his characters different perspectives, goals and fears. In turn, Thompson pulls his meditations on colonization into sharp focus as the characters act like a kaleidoscope, rapidly twisting and turning as they individually process and bargain their way through the constantly changing political landscape. I had an absolute blast reading Wormwood. It’s dark, it’s weird, it’s fun, it’s thoughtful, and I full-throatedly recommend you engage with it on your own and experience all Thompson has to offer.
Rosewater – 9.0/10
Rosewater Insurrection – 9.5/10
Rosewater Redemption – 9.0/10