Review: “Rosewater” By Tade Thompson (Novel)

Well, I was still in the mood for some hardboiled fiction, so I thought that I’d take a look at a second-hand copy of Tade Thompson’s 2016 cyberpunk-influenced sci-fi thriller novel “Rosewater” that I’ve been meaning to read for a couple of weeks.

So, let’s take a look at “Rosewater”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2018 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “Rosewater” that I read.

The novel is set in the Nigerian city of Rosewater in 2066. This city is only about ten years old, having been built around a mysterious alien bio-dome that fell to Earth. These alien visitations to Earth have not only had a major effect on geopolitics (with Russia, China and Africa becoming more powerful) but have also had a biological effect on the planet too. In addition to occasionally healing the sick, reanimating the dead, introducing new lifeforms and providing free electricity, the alien bio-dome has also caused some humans to become “sensitives”, or psychics.

Kaaro is a cynical, world-weary sensitive who works as part of a human firewall for a bank in Rosewater. Every day, he reads vintage novels to create interference to prevent rogue psychics from hacking into the bank. His co-worker Bola insists on setting him up on a date with her friend Aminat during a visit to one of the dome’s healing sessions. But, during the date, he receives a text from Section 45 – a mysterious branch of the country’s security services that Kaaro secretly works for. So, reluctantly, he goes over to their offices and extracts information from the mind of a tortured prisoner.

But, soon, strange things start happening. Kaaro gets psychic visits from a mysterious woman called Molara, his boss warns him about Aminat, some criminals are after him and, even worse, several of the other psychics start dying from a mysterious disease….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a lot of fun to read 🙂 Imagine a combination of a spy/action/detective thriller novel, Jeff Noon’s “Vurt”, a William Gibson novel, Greg Bear’s “Blood Music“, Eric Brown’s “Bengal Station” trilogy, the irreverent time-jumping weirdness of something like Robert Brockway’s “The Unnoticeables” and maybe the “Ghost In The Shell: Stand Alone Complex” TV series and this might give you some vague clue of what to expect 🙂

So, I should probably start by talking about this novel’s sci-fi elements – which are really awesome 🙂 Not only is there a lot of good worldbuilding, showing all of the effects that alien contact has had on Earth, but it is also one of those interesting cyberpunk-style novels which doesn’t actually involve the internet.

Like with the hallucinogenic feathers in Jeff Noon’s “Vurt”, this is a novel that features cyberspace-like scenes that take place within a psychic space called the “Xenosphere” (a traditional VR internet called “Nimbus” exists too, but it is just a background detail).

Not only does this lend the novel a slightly fantastical quality, but it is kept firmly in the sci-fi genre thanks to the inclusion of an actual scientific explanation for it and – by extension – a series of rules surrounding it. And, since this novel relies on the mind (rather than machines) for it’s virtual worlds, it can be a lot more surreal, interesting and just generally creative with these scenes.

Not only is this novel’s worldbuilding absolutely excellent but, like the best sci-fi, it is also completely original too. The aliens are quite literally alien, with the characters knowing enough about them to live near them but not knowing enough for them to be intriguingly mysterious at the same time. Likewise, I cannot praise the atmosphere and descriptions of the city of Rosewater itself highly enough. It’s a really interesting place 🙂

In keeping with the cyberpunk genre, the setting also contains some dystopian elements – however, in an interesting twist, they don’t come from the usual mega-corporations but from more realistic things like government, outdated legislation, mob justice, crime etc… instead. In other words, this novel feels really original 🙂

The novel’s thriller elements are also brilliant too. Not only is this novel written in a fast-paced way, but it also makes excellent use of things like suspense, intrigue, secrets, mini-cliffhangers, mystery and a few action sequences to keep everything compelling.

Another awesome thing about this novel is how it mixes the immediacy of first-person narration with the traditional thriller technique of multiple plot threads. Most first-person thrillers that attempt this use the awkward device of multiple first-person narrators – but this novel instead uses a series of flashback chapters set a decade or two earlier to provide a second plot thread without breaking the immersion by switching the narrator. These time jumps are also very clearly signposted (not only do they tell you the date and location, but they are also marked as “Then” or “Now”) which prevents them from being confusing or breaking the flow of the story 🙂

Plus, this novel also contains horror elements too 🙂 Seriously, these were a really brilliant surprise. In addition to some chilling moments of dystopian horror, there’s also a good amount of psychological horror, a few moments of gory horror, some surreal body horror, a brilliantly intense scene of monster horror and – even better – zombie horror too 🙂 Even though the zombies don’t show up that often, the fact that this novel blends the cyberpunk and zombie genres is really awesome 🙂

In terms of the characters, this novel is reasonably good. The narrator, Kaaro, gets the most characterisation and he’s a classic cyberpunk protagonist of the morally-ambiguous, world-weary and cynical type (who, like Deckard from “Blade Runner”, also works for an evil police force). But, thanks to his narration and intriguing backstory (and a few well-placed moments of humour), he comes across as a really interesting, realistic and surprisingly sympathetic character. Although the novel’s other characters get slightly less characterisation, they seem reasonably realistic and there’s enough characterisation for you to care about what happens to them.

As for the writing, it is excellent 🙂 This novel’s first-person narration is written in the kind of fast-paced, personality-filled way that you’d expect from a good sci-fi or horror thriller novel 🙂 Not only that, the narration also reads like a more understated and streamlined version of the kind of classic hardboiled cyberpunk narration that you’d expect from a writer like William Gibson 🙂 Plus, the narration still manages to remain descriptive enough to add atmosphere and bring the story’s settings to life too 🙂

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. At 390 pages, it’s a little on the longer side of things – but is written in the kind of fast-paced way that won’t make this too much of an issue. The novel is paced like a thriller – with multiple plot threads, compelling suspense, lots of dramatic moments etc..- which also helps to avoid some of the slowness that is typically associated with science fiction. Plus, although this novel is very clearly the first novel in a series (there’s even a note about the sequel at the end), the main plot has enough resolution for the sequel hook/background cliffhanger at the end not to feel frustrating or unsatisfying.

All in all, this novel was a lot of fun to read 🙂 If you want a more innovative and imaginative version of the the cyberpunk genre that moves at twice the usual pace, includes lots of atmosphere, some well-placed horror elements and an interesting premise, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Today’s Art (18th January 2020)

Well, this digitally-edited painting was a bit of a random one. Originally, I’d planned to make a 1980s-style painting but, in the middle of making it, it ended up going in slightly more of a sci-fi/cyberpunk direction instead.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“2082” By C. A. Brown

Some Tired Ramblings About Hidden Inspirations And Creativity

Although I’ve written about ”hidden” inspirations (eg: forgotten things that have shaped or influenced your art style, writing style etc..) before, I thought that I’d revisit the topic again since I found another one. In short, after having a random conversation about television regions with someone, I happened to stumble across a mention of an old mid-late 1990s TV show called “It’s A Mystery” online and was suddenly swamped by a flood of childhood nostalgia.

“It’s A Mystery” was an early-mid afternoon TV show on ITV that investigated accounts of strange and bizarre events (eg: ghost sightings, UFO sightings etc..). It was the sort of intriguingly weird program that could only exist before smartphone cameras became ubiquitous, back when mystery and rumour could still still exist within the world. It was kind of like “The X-Files“, but aimed at a younger audience. And, when I was a lot younger, this show both fascinated and scared the hell out of me at least a few times.

So, filled with nostalgia about something I’d almost forgotten about, I decided to look on Youtube for clips of it. When I watched one and eventually stopped laughing at the gloriously terrible acting in the show’s reconstructions of strange events, I suddenly noticed something very surprising about the design of the show’s main studio. It featured bold, contrasting colours (eg: bold green, orange and blue question marks placed on a dark background, a checkerboard floor etc…).

If you’re a regular reader of this site, you can probably see where I’m going with this. One of the central features of my art style is high-contrast lighting/colours (eg: Tenebrism, chiaroscuro, bright colours against dark backgrounds etc..) and I also like to include checkerboard patterns when I’m in a bit of a gothic mood too. Here are a few examples:

“Video 1985” By C. A. Brown

“Above” By C. A. Brown

“Diner Scene” By C. A. Brown

Of course, if you’d asked me what inspired these elements of my art style before I rediscovered “It’s A Mystery”, I’d have reeled off a long list of things like the movie “Blade Runner“, old 1980s horror novel covers, old heavy metal album covers/T-shirts, these “Doom II” levels, an old computer game called “American McGee’s Alice” etc… And all of these things did play a major role in the development of my art style. Yet, I’d seen an example of this type of high-contrast lighting and checkerboard patterns years before I found any of those things… And I’d almost forgotten about it.

So, yes, hidden inspirations are absolutely fascinating things and they can often be an explanation for all sorts of interesting quirks, themes, stylistic elements etc… in the things that you create. In short, if something turns up in your art or writing and you can’t quite explain why it’s there or why you think that it’s interesting, cool etc… then a hidden, almost-forgotten inspiration possibly has something to do with it.

But, why? At a guess, it is probably because a lot of hidden inspirations will usually tend to be from the earlier parts of your life, mostly because you probably weren’t looking at the world from the perspective of an artist or a writer back then. You probably weren’t trying to learn more about art or writing from the things you watched/read/played/ listened to for fun back then. They were just enjoyable distractions.

So, you absorbed them without really studying them consciously and they either helped to shape your artistic/literary sensibilities or lingered at the back of your memory for some reason or another. They became part of your personal definition of “good writing”, “cool art” etc….

However, one of the interesting things about hidden inspirations is that they only seem obvious in retrospect. In other words, they are something that you’ll only discover by accident.

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Sorry for such a short and rambling article (I was fairly tired when I wrote it), but I hope that it was interesting 🙂

Review: “Sunburn” By Laura Lippman (Novel)

Well, after the previous book I reviewed, I was in the mood for something a bit more fast-paced. So, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to read a noir thriller novel from 2018 called “Sunburn” by Laura Lippman that I found in a charity shop in Petersfield last February (and, yes, I prepare these reviews quite far in advance of posting them). If I remember rightly, I ended up choosing this novel because of the cool cover art and the fact that there were author quotes from both Lee Child and Stephen King on the back cover. Naturally, I was curious.

So, let’s take a look at “Sunburn”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS. I’ll avoid major ones, since this book is best read with as few spoilers as possible.

This is the 2018 Faber & Faber (UK) paperback edition of “Sunburn” that I read.

The novel begins in America in 1995. In a bar in the small Delaware town of Belleville, a mysterious man spots a red-haired woman with sunburnt shoulders sitting alone. He goes over to talk to her and tells her that his car broke down near the town. She isn’t that interested in him. Still, the man decides to stay in town and book a room in the same motel as she is staying in.

The red-haired woman, Polly, has stopped off in the town after leaving her husband and daughter several hours earlier. The man, Adam, is a private detective who has been following her for several weeks. As the two both end up working at the bar and gradually get to know each other, it soon becomes obvious that they both have many more secrets….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a really cool modern-style noir suspense thriller that reminded me a little bit of a mixture between Marc Behm’s “The Eye Of The Beholder“, the film “Blood Simple“, Alice Hoffman’s “Turtle Moon” and maybe even the second or third season of “Twin Peaks”. In other words, it’s a dark, claustrophobic and grippingly suspenseful novel 🙂

In terms of the novel’s noir elements, they are brilliant. Although this novel doesn’t feature any trilby hats or anything like that, it has a wonderfully noir atmosphere thanks to a whole host of things. Whether it is the understated fast-paced “matter of fact” hardboiled third-person narration, the fact that almost every character is morally ambiguous and/or has a shady, secret and/or tragic past, the complex web of criminal intrigue, the brilliant focus on mystery and suspense or even the claustrophobic small town setting, this novel is modern-style noir at it’s very best 🙂

Plus, this novel also updates the gloomy realism of the noir genre too. Although traditional noir fiction is often currently thought of as a wonderfully stylised fantasy of trilby hats, rainy streets and old-timey America, these novels were actually gritty pieces of social realism at the time they were written. And, “Sunburn” updates this to the 1990s – with quite a few bleak and/or grim scenes about realistic tragedy, crime, cruelty etc.. all delivered with the kind of detached tone you’d expect from the noir genre. So, although this novel is a very gripping one, don’t expect it to be a very cheerful one.

This novel also does some really interesting things with the staples of the noir genre too. For starters, although Polly would probably have been written as a “femme fatale” character in a traditional noir story, she’s much more of a complex, and even sympathetic, character here. Likewise, although Adam is that most classic of noir characters – a private detective – he’s a million miles away from the grizzled gumshoes of old. He cooks, he falls in love etc.. and, in a lot of ways, is much more like the traditional naive “love interest” character you’d expect in an old film noir. So, this novel is an intriguingly unpredictable twist on the noir genre.

And, like in many great noir stories, the characters (or, rather, their flaws) are the main driving force for the plot too. This is a novel about complex, imperfect people with ulterior motives that collide in a way that you can’t really look away from. There’s a palpable sense of impending doom, or damnation, hanging over this story – which really helps to add a lot of suspense. Yes, the drama and suspense in this story is fairly small-scale, but this actually works really well since it not only adds realism to the story, but it also helps to add to the tense, suspenseful feeling of claustrophobia too.

Likewise, this novel handles the balance between mystery and suspense really well. The first half or so of the novel focuses slightly more on mystery, with intriguingly dark details and plot twists about various characters being slowly revealed to the reader as the story progresses. Then, when many of the twists, mysteries and secrets have been revealed (with a few held back for the ending, of course), they help to create extra suspense during the later parts of the story.

In addition to the suspense and noir-style plot, another cool thing about this novel is the setting and atmosphere. Given that I absolutely love stories, films etc… set in 1990s America, I knew that I was in for a treat when I saw “1995” on the first page. Interestingly, this novel is a lot more like an actual 1990s novel than a modern historical novel, in that there are very few “nostalgic” 1990s references here (the only ones I spotted were TLC’s “Waterfalls”, a video rental shop, Beanie Babies and a mention of Bill Clinton) and the story is just about ordinary life in a small town.

This actually makes the story feel more 1990s, especially since several of the story’s twists and turns rely on it being set somewhere without internet access. Not only that, the story’s 1990s setting is also relevant to the plot for a reason that I won’t spoil.

I’ve already talked about the complex, realistically flawed characters and the fast-paced “hardboiled” narration, so this just leaves the novel’s length and pacing to talk about. And, in this regard, it absolutely excels too 🙂

Like an actual novel from the 1990s, this one is efficiently short at about 292 pages in length. This helps to keep the story focused. Likewise, although the novel takes the time to set the scene and focus on several characters’ backstories, this never really feels slow-paced thanks to both the fast-moving writing style and the fact that all of these details help to add extra mystery, atmosphere or suspense to the story in some way or another.

Even so, the novel’s pacing is more like a traditional moderate-fast paced thriller rather than an ultra-fast paced action thriller. Still, compared to -say- a Raymond Chandler novel, this novel is a fairly fast-paced one. And it is very compelling.

All in all, this novel is really great 🙂 It’s a modern-style noir suspense thriller that is set in the 1990s and is filled with intriguing characters who drive the plot in a really dramatic way. Yes, it certainly isn’t a “feel-good” novel but if you like the 1990s, the noir genre or suspense, then this novel is well worth reading 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Four Thoughts About Writing Modern Noir Fiction

Well, since I’m currently reading a modern noir novel (called “Sunburn” by Laura Lippman, which is set in the 1990s but was first published in 2018), I thought that I’d look at some of the ways that writers can use this genre in more modern settings.

After all, although classics of the genre like Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” and most of Raymond Chandler’s novels are all set in 1920s-50s America, the genre can work in a surprisingly large number of places and times.

So, here are some thoughts about writing modern noir fiction:

1) Writing style: This is one of the most important parts of the noir genre and one of the easiest ways to tell if a novel is “noir” or not.

In short, the writing style in a noir novel should be “matter of fact” and fast-paced. The thing to remember here is that the original hardboiled crime novels of the 1920s-50s were meant to be mass entertainment – they were the paperback thriller novels or action blockbusters of their day. And, because of this, the writing style usually tends to have a certain detachment and speed to it.

In other words, noir stories usually don’t tend to spend too long describing things (descriptive moments are usually only a few carefully-chosen words or a couple of sentences at most), with the focus being more on events and dialogue. Their writing style often also has a certain emotionless, understated and detached world-weariness to it, like a simple statement of events or a documentary film.

Yes, it is difficult to get this right without making your story’s narration sound boring (and this is where actually reading some of this type of fiction comes in handy, since you can see how other writers handle it). But it is one of the most essential, and timeless, qualities of the noir genre.

2) Characters and morality: Another important, and timeless, part of noir fiction are the characters. In short, most of the characters should have ulterior motives, realistic flaws/motivations and/or a certain level of moral ambiguity.

One of the major things that gives the noir genre its famous atmosphere is the feeling of stepping into a murky, complex world that is a far cry from the more simplistic “good and evil” worlds of many stories. Of reading a story set in a more “realistic” world where people aren’t perfect.

This unflinching and realistic exploration of human nature is something that works well in almost any time or setting. Focusing on moral ambiguity also adds a lot of atmosphere to your story for the simple reason that your reader has almost certainly grown up on more traditional and moralistic “good and evil” stories, so they will be worried about what will happen to the main characters. In other words, it adds extra suspense to the story for the simple reason that the reader has no clue whether there will be any poetic justice or not.

For example, the main character in Mickey Spillane’s 1947 novel “I, The Jury” is a private detective who wants violent revenge against whoever killed his friend. In the 1984 film noir “Blood Simple“, the most sympathetic character (Abby) is having an affair with a guy who works for her dodgy boyfriend. In the 1982 sci-fi film noir masterpiece “Blade Runner“, the main detective (Deckard) is actually more of a villain than the people he is trying to catch. I’m sure you get the idea.

In pretty much every noir novel or film, even more traditional detective-based ones, no character will be entirely “good” or “evil”. And it is the characters, or more importantly, their imperfections – that should drive your story’s plot.

3) Suspense and violence: Although traditional hardboiled “noir” fiction was a precursor to the modern thriller genre, the important thing to remember when writing a modern noir story is that your story should be compelling because of suspense and not because of fast-paced action violence.

Although the modern noir genre can certainly be fairly violent, brutal and horrific (watch “Blood Simple” and read Jack O’ Connell’s 1998 novel “Word Made Flesh” for two unflinchingly grim examples of this), this isn’t usually presented in the thrilling and sanitised way it might be in a modern action-thriller novel. Instead, it is usually the grim result of lots of suspense and – realistically – it usually has serious consequences of one kind or another too.

In other words, noir stories emphatically don’t glamourise violence and will often be more about the fear of impending violence (so, they’re a bit closer to the horror genre) than anything else. This suspenseful feeling of impending doom is one of the key parts of the noir genre and, even in more non-violent stories, it is an important thing to remember. The reader needs to feel “this probably won’t end well” fairly early in the story. There needs to be a sense of tension, claustrophobia and/or dread lurking in the background throughout the story.

For example, although I’ve only read about a third of Laura Lippman’s “Sunburn” at the time of writing, it is a novel where the main characters are either hiding from people, running from people or spying on people. And it is incredibly suspenseful as a result. Add to this the fact that most of the earlier parts of the novel all take place in one small, claustrophobic rural town and – even though it is a million miles away from the trilby-wearing chain-smoking gumshoes of traditional noir fiction/film, it still feels very much like something from the noir genre.

4) Settings: Although noir stories can be set anywhere, there are a few things to remember when creating settings for modern noir fiction. Not only do your settings have to feel run-down and lived-in (to add atmosphere and realism to the story) but they must also seem hostile in some way or another. Again, this has to do with the fact that the noir genre relies heavily on suspense and one of the best ways to add suspense is to put your characters somewhere where they aren’t safe.

Traditionally, this usually means that noir stories either take place in large, impersonal crime-ridden cities or in claustrophobic and hopeless small towns. Although it is probably possible to set a noir story somewhere other than this, the important thing is that the location not only has to feel “realistic” (even the futuristic city in “Blade Runner” deliberately looks old and lived-in), but it should be somewhere that feels unsafe in some way or another.

Again, the noir genre actually has slightly more in common with the horror genre than the thriller genre in this respect.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂