The Winter Tide
By Ruthanna Emrys
Published April 2017 (Tor.com)
There have been a lot of Lovecraft-related stories recently. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson and The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle were both finalists for this years Hugo Award for best Novella. 2016 also saw the release of the excellent Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, and I know there have been plenty of other stories I haven’t gotten around to. The Winter Tide continues this trend of re-telling Lovecraft’s mythos whilst re-examining the themes he dealt with.
The Winter Tide is a sequel of sorts to Lovecraft’s classic story The Shadow Over Innsmouth, which features a town of human/monstrous-fish-people-hybrids who worship Cthulhu, perform human sacrifice, and make people who find out too much about the town disappear. However, Winter Tide suggests that what we learnt in Shadow Over Innsmouth may not have been quite true. Here the people of Innsmouth are presented as being not demon-spawn, but a different species of human who after a brief life on land metamorphize and live in the ocean. Their beliefs are strange and some of their rituals look barbaric to those who don’t understand them, but they are not evil. They just want to be left alone. If you have read Shadow Over Innsmouth, you know that things don’t end well for the townspeople.
Aphra Marsh and her brother Caleb are the last survivors of Innsmouth. They spent years in an internment camp, and after their people had nearly died off were joined by Japanese-Americans who were interred because of paranoia during WWII. Aphra and Caleb are released along with their new Japanese family, and then began trying to rebuild their lives. This is a book with a big message about many of the injustices that come from othering and misjudging people. Caleb goes back to Innsmouth and attempts to retrieve the books that belonged to his people, and finds that they have been confiscated and sold off. The entire culture of Innsmouth has been prohibited to him and Aphra. Aphra is given a chance to gain access to the books, as long as she helps the government that destroyed her family and way of life find a way to stop the Soviet Union from using magic against the USA.
Reading this book reminded me a bit of Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal. We have a team of ‘irregulars’ dealing with supernatural forces and the prejudices of the time during a real conflict (WWI for Ghost Talkers, The Cold War for Winter Tide). Whilst Ghost Talkers delivered a captivating action/romance plot, I feel Winter Tide neglected some of it’s potential by pushing the Cold War with Magic premise aside. Aphra recognises the importance of the situation, but she uses it mostly as a chance to gain access to her town’s books and to improve her magic. This isn’t a bad thing; in fact, Aphra has a lot of reasons for not trusting the government and not wanting to work with them. She also longs to find a family, and ends up doing so in unexpected ways. We are given a good plot, but I feel that de-emphasising the magical Russian element and attempting to create such a close bond between this group of characters hurt the story in some places. There were parts where it felt a bit slow, and some scenes where it seemed like some characters were standing around saying and doing nothing.
In the end, I feel these issues didn’t detract too much from the story. Aphra is a compelling character, and I enjoyed her journey. Once I finished the book, I realised it was a sequel to a novelette called The Litany of Earth which I had to read straight away. You won’t miss anything by reading The Winter Tide without reading The Litany of Earth, but I found myself feeling much more excited about this world after reading Litany.
Now let’s talk about the worldbuilding. For die-hard fans of Lovecraft, this new approach to the mythos might not ring true. Seeing Cthulhu as a disinterested but protective god was somewhat jarring for me. But this new way of looking at the mythos was also super interesting. Lovecraft paints our insignificance and powerlessness as horrific, but Emrys shows her characters finding peace and humility in the knowledge that their lives, and even all human history, will one day be long gone. This feels like fantasy, not horror. What horror we do get comes not from the usual monstrous entities (thought, there is one) but from what humans can do to each other.
Emrys also references a lot of Lovecraft’s work. The references to Shadow Over Innsmouth and the wider Cthulhu mythos have already been mentioned. The events in The Thing on the Doorstop also play a role in Winter Tide, and Arkham city and Miskatonic University are key pieces of the setting. For me though, I was most excited to see the Great Race of Yith make an appearance. The Shadow Out of Time is my favourite Lovecraft story, and I found myself so enamoured by the Yith and their record keeping that I was able to gloss over the fact that they occasionally destroy entire races to continue their existence. Emrys makes sure we can’t ignore the more disturbing actions of the Yith, and highlights many other disturbing implications of their way of life. Yet despite being forced to admit that the Yith are jerks, I still enjoyed their depiction here, and loved how Emrys fleshed out the role they play in Earth’s history.
All in all, I enjoyed this book. The ending left me excited to see where Aphra will go next. I’m glad to see that the sequel, Deep Roots, is set for release on the 10th July next year.