After attacking Devil’s Reef in 1928, the U.S. Government rounded up the people of Innsmouth and took them to the desert, far from their ocean, their Deep One ancestors, and their sleeping god Cthulhu. Only Aphra and Caleb Marsh survived the camps, and they emerged without a past or a future.
The government that stole Aphra’s life now needs her help. FBI agent Ron Spector believes that Communist spies have stolen dangerous magical secrets from Miskatonic University, secrets that could turn the Cold War hot in an instant, and hasten the end of the human race.
Aphra must return to the ruins of her home, gather scraps of her stolen history, and assemble a new family to face the darkness of human nature.
Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide is one of Tor.com’s line of revisionist Lovecraftiana, alongside Cassandra Khaw’s Hammers on Bone and Victor LaValle’s Ballad of Black Tom: grappling the worst of Lovecraft’s legacy, his racism and hatred, as well as the best, his existential terror and horrifying vision of the world and of human history.
Winter Tide is a meditation on monstrousness, monstrosity, what makes one monstrous, and what others see as monstrous; it is also a story about found family and making one’s own family. The former theme is as much about the cultural relativism of monstrosity, and the things we justify because we psychologicall must, as it is about actual monsters; after all, as Emrys’ protagonist Aphra Marsh is at pains to point out, the Deep Ones (of which she is one, granddaughter of Obed Marsh) are as much humans as any homo sapiens. This also plays into the queer characters somewhat – what American society saw as monstrous in the 1940s, other cultures, including the Deep Ones, did not.
Emrys also ties in this theme of Winter Tide with racism; fear of the Other is hardly limited to non-homo sapiens, after all. The Deep Ones living in Innsmouth were, in this timeline, incarcerated in an internment camp in 1928, after accusations by Daniel Upton; almost all, except Aphra and her brother Caleb, perished by 1942… when the American government incarcerated Japanese-Americans in the camps, reusing the Innsmouth camp as one of its locations. Another character in the novel is FBI Agent Ron Spector, a Jewish man who has to deal with the antisemitism of his supervisors, especially in the wake of the foundation of Israel; another is a black woman, Dorothy Dawson, who has to suffer the prejudice of the white characters. Winter Tide centres on these characters Lovecraft was terrified of, and has them doing the work to keep humanity from abusing magic and the spaces beyond the world; Emrys very consciously pulls together a group whom Lovecraft could scarcely have despised more on sight, and then makes them shine.
Winter Tide is also about found families, of course. Aphra finds her first family in the camp, with the Japanese-American Kotos, whom she lives with in San Francisco after they’re released in December 1945; but over the course of the novel she builds another family, including the Kotos, people who are interested in magic and discovery, or in her friendship. Found families aren’t so uncommon in speculative fiction as they once were but Emrys’ novel-length meditation on developing one and the random chance encounters that lead to deep bonds of affection, and the way relationships can change as people learn each other better, is one of the more beautiful I’ve seen.
I’ve not actually mentioned the plot, and that’s because Emrys is at her weakest when it comes to the plot. Winter Tide is a novel of characters and relationships; the plot takes a very second strand to that, with many events just seeming to happen without any logical precipitating factor beyond the need for something to advance the story. The first three quaters of the book are a little slow and unfocused, as a result; and the last third feels like a separate novella stuck on the end, except for how it utilises relationships (not events qua events) from the earlier part of the book. The sudden change in focus isn’t smooth, but does work to really pull the reader to the end of the novel.
Winter Tide, then, is a beautiful, langorous book about interpersonal dynamics and relationships, about what it is to be human and what makes one a monster, and an elegant riposte to Lovecraft’s many vile bigotries. What Emrys has not written is a thrilling tale to pull you through it; that may put some readers off, but I’d urge them to keep going for the human core of the novel. It’s worth it.
DISCLOSURE: This review was based on an ARC provided by the publisher, Tor.com.
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