REVIEW: Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

WINTER TIDE by Ruthanna Emrys
Tor.com, 2017
eBook, 368pp

Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

Winter Tide is the first book in Ruthanna Emrys’ budding series The Innsmouth Legacy, set in a world in which the facts of the Lovecraft mythos remain the same but the reading is crucially different. The book is preceded by Emrys’ 2014 novelette The Litany of Earth, which you can read for free on Tor.com.

The key to the book is its protagonist, Aphra Marsh. Aphra is a daughter of the men of the water, a sub-species of human the land-walking form of which had made their home, among other places, at Innsmouth, Massachusetts. This is the famous Innsmouth of H. P. Lovecraft’s mythos, depicted in the short story ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth‘.

In Lovecraft’s story, Obed Marsh is the patriarch and shipping magnate who brings the cult of Dagon to America, striking a deal with the Deep Ones, a humanoid fish-like, frog-like people who live under the sea, for plentiful fishing and gold in return for interbreeding and worship.

Seen through Aphra’s eyes, Lovecraft’s depiction of the people of Innsmouth as horrifying sub-humans dedicated to sinister rites becomes a wilfully ignorant outsider’s view, clearly parallel with European colonisers’ historical description of the native peoples of North America and Africa. (This is not really a subjective reading. H. P. Lovecraft was infamously hideously racist. It’s not coincidence that the Dagon cult came in the original from the Pacific islands.)

In Winter Tide, the people of the water are as old and legitimate a human sub-species as the people of the air (i.e. what we understand as vanilla humans), as well as the people of the earth, who long ago went mad and descended under the surface (for the Lovecraftian source for the people of the earth look at his short story ‘The Rats in the Walls‘, a genuinely horrifying tale marred by its abhorrent racism). Emrys’ Innsmouth has been home to people of the water since its inception. What Lovecraft cast as the result of interbreeding between humans and Deep Ones are in Winter Tide ordinary genetic features of the people of the water.

In ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ Lovecraft has the people of Innsmouth disappeared by the government to military prisons and concentration camps. Emrys shows us in more detail what happened to them: they were taken by the FBI to camps in the Nevada desert, where all but two survivors died.

The story of Winter Tide takes place two decades after the raid on Innsmouth. Aphra has been living in San Francisco with the Kotos, a Japanese-American family she met in the camps, and working at bookshop whose owner, Charlie Day, she has been tentatively teaching magic. FBI agent Ron Spector, her history with whom is covered in The Litany of Earth,  has a job for her: accompany him back across the country to Miskatonic University to help uncover a Russian spy who may have discovered the magical technique of body-swapping.

Along the way, Aphra reunites with her brother and her underwater family, and broadens her narrow circle of friends and allies, as well as running into further ignorance and malice.

Winter Tide is a story in dialogue with ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’. It takes the short story’s tropes and twists them to reveal Lovecraft’s unpleasant psyche, and uses them to demonstrate the ugly truth: that his racist revulsion at the ‘other’ is no less than the first step in the journey to concentration camps and the extermination of a people.

But more than that, the plot itself is an answer to the murderous bigotry of its background. Following the genocide of the land-walking people of the water, Aphra and Caleb find their own healing in an America that fears and dismisses them, as well as a further family through their magic, members variously marginalised in differing ways. It’s her family, both new and old, that helps Aphra navigate the dangers of the elite Miskatonic University and the FBI investigation, and emerge if not unscathed at least stronger and less afraid than before.

This is why, even though I initially felt wrong-footed because I hadn’t first read The Litany of EarthWinter Tide quickly became comfort reading for me. It was not only this but also the care and respect with which it was written. In a book about a genocide, that care is important.

Given this, the weight given to the library at Miskatonic and its collection of books from Innsmouth really hit me in the feels. Books and knowledge are important to the people of the water, and the sequestering of Aphra’s community’s books by Miskatonic in the name of preservation parallels the reluctance of private art collectors to relinquish Jewish-owned art objects following WWII.

To bring up another fantasy diaspora, Tolkien’s depiction of the dwarves of Erebor as prone to ‘obsession’ with their gold is a textbook example of a too-simplistic presentation of a homeless people’s desire to reclaim their lost artefacts. Contrast this with Emrys’ sensitivity: showing the pain of seeing your own precious things in someone else’s possession, knowing they are all that’s left of your people and that they rightfully belong to you, yet also knowing it would be irresponsible to liberate them.

While I would recommend reading The Litany of Earth before Winter Tide, you should definitely do so and get in on this ASAP. Personally I can’t wait to get back into Emrys’ alternate America and back into Aphra’s head in further books in this series.

Winter Tide will be published by Tor Books on April 4th, 2017, in the US, and May 16th in the UK. You can buy it at Amazon US/UK, The Book Depository, or your local independent bookshop; or you can request it at your local library.

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