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The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander

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In the early years of the 20th century, a group of female factory workers in Newark, New Jersey slowly died of radiation poisoning. Around the same time, an Indian elephant was deliberately put to death by electricity in Coney Island.

These are the facts.

Now these two tragedies are intertwined in a dark alternate history of rage, radioactivity, and injustice crying out to be righted. Prepare yourself for a wrenching journey that crosses eras, chronicling histories of cruelty both grand and petty in search of meaning and justice.
~~~~~
Brooke Bolander’s work has garnished any number of nominations, including multiple Locus, Hugo, and Nebula awards, among others. The Only Harmless Great Thing is her first solo volume; a slim novella out of Tor.com, it’s already picked up a lot of interesting buzz and an excellent marketing campaign… but does the novella bear out the speculation?

The Only Harmless Great Thing is a very odd book; it marries together alternate history with a science fictional future, in two parallel narratives, with a third, folkloric deep-history narrative running alongside those two. Bolander’s choices of narratives are not pleasant ones. The Only Harmless Great Thing is the story of an elephant, Topsy, brought with a little alternate history into the story of Regan, a Radium Girl. In Bolander’s world, elephants are discovered to have language and a degree of sentience in the 1880s, and so when the effects of radium were discovered, US Radium brought elephants in to paint the watches – one of whom is Topsy. In a parallel narrative, much later, Kat is trying to persuade elephants to allow humans to make them glow near nuclear waste dumps as a lasting warning about the presence of radiation, as a ten-thousand-year warning sign.

Bolander slips between the different narratives, registers, and narrators of The Only Harmless Great Thing with a skillful grace and ease that ties the whole thing together; the voices are very distinct, and that helps to distinguish between the stories as we slip between them. At times, it can be a little confusing for a few lines, but on the whole which narrative Bolander has the reader in rapidly becomes clear. The alternate and future histories are intertwined seamlessly with reality, and on the whole their revelation is well done; there are moments Bolander relies on knowledge that she hasn’t given the audience yet, but they’re few and far between.

This is a sparsely characterised novella; The Only Harmless Great Thing has a grand total of nine characters, which includes two pachyderms, one character who only speaks once and that through a post-mortem letter, an interpreter, a supervisor, an academic, a corporate executive, and a bitter Radium Girl. Of these, three are at various times viewpoint characters, and the rest appear only briefly; Bolander doesn’t make their characters much more than the flat necessities for the advancement of the plot, but her three core characters, those whose viewpoints we follow, are far better realised.

Each has a very unique voice and thought process, from the slangy dialect of Regan through to the mythopoetic style of thought of Topsy and the straightforwardly modern Kat. The Only Harmless Great Thing does a fantastic job of showing how Topsy’s and Regan’s lives parallel each other and how their struggles with forces outside and larger than themselves change them. There is a strong streak of radical politics on display in the work, and a class anger, that Bolander infuses with a kind of bleak despair at the state of the treatment of the working classes and of nature; and the way she uses that and filters it through her characters is incredibly powerful. The problem is Kat; Bolander’s treatment of her is uneven, and her character veers sharply between profoundly empathetic and profoundly disconnected, growing from one to the other and back again, and without any real sense of who she is as a person outside the project she proposed.

Finally, and almost without characters, is the deep-history myth-narrative that runs alongside these two core narratives. Bolander tells this in something akin to the style of a Just So story; and her style for these sections is absolutely beautiful and perfect, and the story itself is dark, moving, and painful. The Only Harmless Great Thing takes this extra piece of the jigsaw and moves, suddenly, from a two dimensional to a three dimensional puzzle, a complex narrative of interlocking parts with multiple messages; it’s only at the end that the relevance of this story becomes obvious to the others, in a very neat bit of writing.

The Only Harmless Great Thing isn’t a perfect novella, but it is a fantastic one; Bolander’s continues to go from strange, dark strength to dark, strange strength, and this continues that trend.

Disclaimer: This review was based on an ARC provided on request by the publisher, Tor.com.

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Mumbo Jumbo by Ishmael Reed

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America, 1920s. A plague is spreading, and it’s spreading fast, from New Orleans to Chicago to New York.

It’s an epidemic of freedom, joy and self-expression, being spread by Black artists, that makes anyone who catches it desperate to dance, sing, laugh and jive. It’s the outbreak of Jazz, Ragtime and Blues onto the world scene; the spirit of Blackness overtaking America and the world. And it’s threatening to dismantle the whole social order.

Working to root out the plague by any means possible – even murder – are the members of The Wallflower Order, an international conspiracy dedicated to puritanism and control. But, deep in the heart of Harlem, private eye and Vodun priest Papa LaBas is determined to defend his flourishing ancient culture against their insidious plans. And so, he finds himself locked in a race against the Order to find an ancient Egyptian text which might just be the key to keeping the virus of freedom alive.
~~~~~
I first heard of Mumbo Jumbo through Tor.com, specifically this essay in Nisi Shawl’s fantastic History of Black Science Fiction series. Given Shawl’s recommendation, I picked it up – from the general fiction, not SFF, section – as soon as I saw the new Penguin Modern Classics edition.

Mumbo Jumbo is an odd book; there is a single narrative strain to it, a single plot, but the way Reed tells his story, it feels rather more disjointed, more confused, less cohesive as a single thing. This is clearly an intentional choice, and lends a fascinating kind of puzzle quality to the book; working out how different things, different characters, and different aspects of the novel fit together with each other becomes a harder task, but also a more rewarding one, than in a more traditional Western narrative. Reed rejects these models to combine different forms into a single work, creating a modernist experimental novel.

That novel follows the phenomenon of Jes Grew, a kind of socio-spiritual movement which combines dance, religion, and free decolonised thought; Mumbo Jumbo can be read as (relatively) mimetic if the reader chooses, though Reed’s inclusion of supernatural elements, and a consciousness and intention behind Jes Grew, suggests such a reading would lose something key. The different things Reed draws into the story of Jes Grew include Western global colonialism, Black cultural development and radical Black thought in 1920s America, an internationalist tendency, a resistance to Western patronisation of other cultures, and more.

One of the ways Reed takes on imperialism in Mumbo Jumbo is through the Mu’tafikah, an internationalist and multiracial group dedicated to taking non-Western artifacts from Western museums and returning them to the cultures from which they were plundered. Reed is unabashedly on the side of these liberators, and the novel has, in its occasional moments of focus on them, an absolutely brilliant heist quality and sense of lightness. The characters of the Mu’tafikah are some of the most oddball of the novel, and absolutely wonderfully characterised, with their own prejudices but working together through them against a common enemy.

The other, more central plot of the novel follows the attempts of the Wallflower Order to suppress Jes Grew. Mumbo Jumbo posits an ideological system called Atonism that is upheld across the West, and seems to have its roots in Judaism; there is a somewhat antisemitic undercurrent in the way that Judaism is treated as a (part of) a shadowy force that has constantly attempted to suppress Black thought and art down history. The different ways the Atonists try to control power, and the different Atonist organisations – including the Knights Templar, and the Masons, naturally – are unsurprising and typical of this kind of conspiracy, but the way Reed writes them as barely competent and always on the edge of exposure and total failure is refreshing. Similarly, so is the opposition to the conspiracy; Reed gives us different individuals working at cross-purposes to the same ends of Black liberation, and Mumbo Jumbo draws both comic and tragic power from the factionalism of the resistance to White supremacy and the Wallflower Order.

The actual characters of Mumbo Jumbo are, given how intellectual the underpinnings of the novel are, actually fully fleshed out and interesting characters, far more than just authorial constructs. Reed gives us a broad cast, including Black gangsters and hustlers, White newsmen and bigots, a VouDou priest who also has a sideline in private detection, a Nation of Islam forerunner, and more. They’ve all got pasts, and perspectives on the Jes Grew phenomenon and the state of America; they’ve all got different interests outside the focus of the novel which they attend to from time to time, taking time away from the plot only to appear again, or even being followed while doing something of little immediate bearing. Mumbo Jumbo‘s pages are peopled by characters who are not only fully fleshed out but also familiar; not as tropes, but as people one might know, might have encountered in life, and Reed makes them all feel like old friends.

Mumbo Jumbo is a bit of a jumble of a novel, but it’s also a work of genius; a modernist masterpiece, a patchwork of different elements that arguably ought not to work together, but that Reed brings together with a confidence and style that makes it look almost easy. This is a strange, mind-bending read, like little else I’ve read.

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Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng

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Catherine Helstone’s brother, Laon, has disappeared while bringing the Gospels to the Dark Continent – not Africa, but Arcadia, legendary land of the magical fae.

Desperate for news of him, she makes the perilous journey to that extraordinary land, but once there, she finds herself alone and isolated in the sinister house of Gethsemane. At last there comes news: her beloved brother is riding to be reunited with her – but the Queen of the Fae and her insane court are hard on his heels.
~~~~~
Jeannette Ng’s Under the Pendulum Sun marries two powerful streams in British fiction; the gothic, a trend that goes back to the 18th century, with fairy tales, a genre that goes back much further. At first glance these two might sit uneasily together; does Ng make them fit?

Gothic is, in no small part, a matter of atmosphere; whether the Northern faded grandeur and isolation of Crimson Peak or the baroque claustrophobia of Mervyn Peake’s magnificent Gormenghast, that is the foremost marker of the gothic. It is one Ng embraces wholeheartedly from the very opening of the novel; we are introduced to Catherine, Under the Pendulum Sun‘s protagonist, as she reaches the strangeness and abstraction of the Faelands. The opening of the novel is then concerned with her journey to the preacher’s manse of Gethsemane; a pile of stone that simultaneously seems to have been altered over the years, and to have been built in one go with the appearance of great age. Empty, slightly decaying, and understaffed, Ng’s chosen setting partakes of a number of gothic tropes, reworking them through excellent language and a powerful, although not light, touch that really does create the horror innate to the genre; this continues in those few sections that take place outside the castle, where the moors or forests are twisted versions of ones familiar to us, and that twist is simultaneously dreamlike and nightmarish.

The plot is also suitably baroque; Under the Pendulum Sun concerns Catherine’s attempts to first find her brother, and then to discover what happened to the previous missionary to the fairies. Ng, loathe to leave no gothic tropes unused, also threads a forbidden romance into the mix, which burns slowly and alters the tenor of every character interaction between the only two humans in the novel, Catherine and her brother. The different plot elements are incredibly smartly done, and Ng wears her education lightly but effectively: events hinge in no small part on a matter of longstanding theological debate, and the degree to which theology is threaded through the novel as a lived concern cannot be overstated. The gothic cliches in the conclusion come thick and fast, but are well written, and Under the Pendulum Sun always makes sure the groundwork is laid for them.

Ng is less strong in her character work. Catherine is brilliant, and her emotional state decaying and fraying across the course of the novel is captured brilliantly, as are her varied desires in conflict with each other; Under the Pendulum Sun has a protagonist whose voice is never lost. Laon, however, seems a shallow character; he is a cipher for the plot, in no small respect, and without a strong sense of who he is throughout the book. The smaller parts are equally mixed fare; Mr Benjamin, the gnome gardener convert (whose mine was closed by the Lady of Iron), is a brilliantly curious little character, whose constraints and theological probing are at times hilarious and at times deeply moving. Ariel Davenport, on the other hand, is a rather thin character; Ng relies on Catherine’s attachment to Ariel to stand in as a proxy for reader attachment, and Under the Pendulum Sun suffers a bit for it.

The other place Under the Pendulum Sun suffers is stylistically. Ng has a beautiful, slightly baroque style, and a wide and fascinating imagination, encompassing sea whales and semiotic moths. At times, however, her style could have done with a tighter edit; there are points at which the text becomes repetitious or unclear, and occasional moments where the fantastic claustrophobia of the text becomes less an intentional trap of the gothic and more a frustration to the reader.

In the end, while Under the Pendulum Sun does have some shortcomings, Jeannette Ng has written an utterly brilliant gothic novel, using all the tropes and cliches of the genre and rising above them in magnificent style. I highly recommend it.

Disclaimer: Jeannette Ng is a friend.

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A Pocketful of Crows by Joanne M. Harris

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I am as brown as brown can be,
And my eyes as black as sloe;
I am as brisk as brisk can be,
And wild as forest doe.
(The Child Ballads, 295)

So begins a beautiful tale of love, loss and revenge. Following the seasons, A Pocketful of Crows balances youth and age, wisdom and passion and draws on nature and folklore to weave a stunning modern mythology around a nameless wild girl.

Only love could draw her into the world of named, tamed things. And it seems only revenge will be powerful enough to let her escape.
~~~~~
Folklore and mythology have always been fertile ground for genre fiction; Joanne Harris herself, with an added Iain Banks-style M., has previously touched on the Norse sagas in novels like Runelight and The Gospel of Loki. Now, though, she’s turned her sights to a mythology far more rarely treated in fiction: that of the Child Ballads, in this case, specifically Child Ballad 295…

Harris’ novella retelling the story of that Ballad is focused, as is the ballad itself, on the wronged woman at its heart; the “brown girl” of the title. In A Pocketful of Crows, Harris makes this titular woman a witch, a member of the “travelling folk” who can take on the form of animals and do certain magic. She falls in love with a local lord’s son, William McCormac. This fall is precipitous and extreme; Harris writes sympathetically and with a lot of heart about the way our protagonist slowly realises how deep her attachment to William is, and the way her denial of it slowly falls away, over the course of a series of months; and the way he slowly accepts her and draws her in, tempting her into the human society he is a part of and naming her Malmuira. As a result of this, she loses her powers, and Harris writes about the trade off of magic for love with a real beauty; it’s heart-wrenching but worthwhile for the protagonist, even as she regrets the loss.

Of course, this can’t continue; A Pocketful of Crows isn’t a romance, after all. Instead, William casts aside Malmuira on the orders of his father, as an unsuitable partner; at which point Harris’ narrative takes on a colder, crueler turn, as she seeks to regain her old powers and freedoms. This takes up the latter two thirds of the book, as the woman who was nameless then named Malmuira frees herself from the tangle of human concerns involved in loving William; it’s a dark series of events, and Harris revels in that darkness, really giving it weight and heft. However, A Pocketful of Crows doesn’t just delve into the darkness; it contrasts that with the way its protagonist finds her freedom through this darkness, and how she returns to herself rather than the person tangled up with William. The way Harris ties these two narratives strands together, and then slips a third brilliant twist in right at the close of the novella, is absolutely brilliantly crafted.

This section, the latter two thirds of the novella, contains both the most beautiful writing in A Pocketful of Crows, and also some of the least effective. The darkness and frustration of the protagonist is powerfully evocative, and the way Harris calls the passing seasons and changing world to mind brilliantly and with a real sensorium. However, it can also drags a little; scenes feel repetitive as nothing happens or changes, and as we experience slight variations on the same events time and again, losing some of the edge of the book.

Throughout the story is a theme of identity as mediated not by the individual, but by the way the individual is perceived; as Malmuira’s identity in the public perception shifts and warps from William’s bit on the side to an evil witch, the character herself finds herself freer of human society and the constraints it imposed on her powers. A Pocketful of Crows is deeply concerned with the idea of the mutability of stories; the way Christianity is overlaid on old folk beliefs, the way fear of witches can develop and be fostered, and the way stories change are all things that Harris doesn’t foreground so much as allow the reader to glimpse the importance of as she tells this dark tale.

The big flaw in the novella is the way it carries certain racist tropes from its inspiration. A Pocketful of Crows is based on a Child Ballad, which carried tropes about mystical Travellers and magical dark skinned people. While Harris makes her brown girl into a non-human being, solitary and isolated, a truly magical witch rather than a Romani person, there is still a hint of the way much Western literature caricatures the Romani people in there, perhaps inescapably.

In the end, though, A Pocketful of Crows is a dark tale, and a savage one, and a beautiful one; Harris really shows what she can do with the short form in this little novella.

Disclaimer: Joanne Harris is a friend. This review was based an ARC, without illustrations, provided by the publisher, Gollancz. An event to launch the novella will be held at Waterstones Argyle Street, my place of work, on October 18th.

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Spectred Isle by K. J. Charles

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Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.

Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfil his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.

Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.
~~~~~
At Eastercon, Juliet Kemp recommended I read K. J. Charles’ historical romance novels; she extended the same recommendation at Nineworlds, where Charles happened to be appearing, selling copies of her latest novel, the first in a new stand-alone series. So I picked up Spectred Isle and read it on the flight from London to Helsinki…

Spectred Isle is set in the wake of the First World War, in 1920s Britain; a society divided by class but united by the terrible experience of the war and following pneumonia, which wiped out so much of the population. Into this society are dropped Saul Lazenby, disgraced discharged soldier now working for an eccentric lord, and Randolph Glyde, a member of Britain’s magical and temporal aristocracies. This is a romance, so the end result is inevitable; what we read Charles for is to see how she’ll get there, and what obstacles will appear in the characters’ ways.

The biggest obstacle is themselves. Spectred Isle does a great job at writing the two romantic partners as opposites who bounce off each other hard even as they find the other incredibly attractive; the dynamic of their developing relationship is written sympathetically and powerfully, although at times with a bit of a knowing wink to the reader at the inevitability of them getting together. Each carries their own, different wounds, as well as their different experiences of being gay in 1920s Britain; Charles draws them together in a tender and beautiful emotional net built out of their different characters.

Aside from that, there is also the external obstacle of the supernatural. Spectred Isle is a book as much about supernatural sleuthing as it is about burgeoning romance; something or someone is attacking Britain’s magical defences, weakened by the slaughter of the occult war that underlay the physical one, and Randolph has to stop it. Saul seems to keep blundering in his way, until eventually, he’s drawn into the strange web being woven around the occult sites of England; and transitions from a sceptic to a believer in magic himself. Charles builds this plot slowly and carefully, placing clues as to what’s going on the way a crime writer does; putting the pieces together gives rise to a bigger picture that will, the reader presumes, continue in the later installments in the series.

Spectred Isle is interesting in the way Charles uses her setting. In 1920s Britain, homosexual sex was a criminal act, but also one that was, in the upper classes at least, often tacitly accepted; Randolph and Saul thus have very different attitudes to their sexualities, although there are interesting commonalities. What Charles never does is let either become a tragic figure, or the only queers in the world; this is a setting which has background queers of all kinds, and while both have tragedy in their past, in neither case is it solely because of their homosexuality. It’s a hard balance to strike, but an important one.

Finally, but very worth note, this is a romance novel that goes straight into erotica. Charles is very willing to put sex on the page, and explicit, slightly kinky sex at that; Spectred Isle has a few sex scenes, and each is different, well-imagined, and hot. They are sex scenes which reveal a lot about the characters, and grow organically out of the interactions between their personality types; made all the more sexy by the way Charles doesn’t shy away from being explicit, or having her characters be so.

Spectred Isle was my first taste of Charles’ period gay romance, but it definitely won’t be my last; this is a hot and brilliant book and I look forward to the rest of the series.

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Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

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San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World’s Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer “authentic” experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.

Six women find their lives as tangled with each other’s as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.

Inspired by the pulps, film noir, and screwball comedy, Passing Strange is a story as unusual and complex as San Francisco itself from World Fantasy Award winning author Ellen Klages.
~~~~~
Passing Strange is a bit of an odd duck in the Tor.com novella line up: so far everything I’ve read from them has been very much core genre, and I’ve read most of the line up, at least one installment in each series. Passing Strange is a very different beast, although one still very much in line with the rest of its author’s (fêted) ouevre…

As we all know, being queer was taboo in the 1940s in America, even in liberal bastions like San Francisco, the city to which every black sheep ran; Passing Strange is all about that experience, about being a queer woman in that period – and about different ways of being a queer woman in the period. Klages assembles a small ensemble cast to show us multiple different intersecting oppressions – the Japanese-American Helen Young, dealing with anti-Japanese racism in an America only a few years away from war with Japan; the disinherited upper-class Emily Netterfield, who performs drag; pulp cover-artist Loretta Haskel (misgendered by later ‘experts’ in the field, of course); and more. Each woman sparkles brightly and beautifully with a vivacity that feels something like a Hollywood glamour film; they leap off the page brightly, and even in their quieter, more domestic moments, they have a kind of shine.

It’s beautiful writing and character realisation, and the way that Klages developes the relationships between the women across the course of Passing Strange is slow and very human: friendships formed in a single meeting, a social gathering of Sapphic sistren, out of which comes a tangle of friendships, relationships, and events. Things move quickly and slowly by turn, beautifully developing; Klages writes with a sensitive, emotionally deft hand about exploring one’s own and each other’s feelings in the early days of a relationship, as well as the comfort and familiarity of the latter stages of one. The plot really takes a backstage to the relationship; indeed, the plot is the relationship, really, with a few events that add tangles to it, but even there everything is centred on relationships, mainly that between Haskel and Emily.

Klages isn’t writing history, but she is writing realism; Passing Strange spends a certain amount of time on looking at the effects of the strictures of the day, and what those strictures were. Things like the three-garment test (of whether women were breaking the law by wearing men’s clothing), the police attitude to gay establishments, and general social attitudes; Klages is far from sympathetic to these bigotries, but she is sympathetic to the women who have to deal with them, and there’s a beautiful critique, worked in throughout the narrative, of the way heteronormative society tries to force queers into the closet.

All this history is surrounded by a wonderful frame story of Helen in her old age, in the contemporary world; it’s a bittersweet story, but also pulls cackles from the reader, as Klages ensures people get their comeuppance, as Passing Strange deals out appropriate ends and ensures some rather fun loose ends are tied up – and points out certain modern hypocrisies, to boot. It’s a framing story that really drives home the magical-realist elements of the novel, which are essential to the ending but for the rest of it are just a little extra flavour Klages adds beautifully and, seemingly, purely for the whimsy of it.

Passing Strange is a beautiful, wonderful gem of a story, a lesbian romance that really feels sweet and gentle and happy; Klages has crafted a real joy of a story. And if that weren’t enough, there’s a Diego Rivera cameo, so how can you resist?

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Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

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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.

If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write these reviews by contributing to my Patreon.

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