Review: Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

Posted by DarkChaplain at 4/20/2017
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.
I had been holding on to a review copy of this for months now. Months. I figured I'd best save it for around March, getting the review out shortly before release in early April. Look how that turned out. The release brought with it an audiobook version, which I bought on Audible to make up for the lost time in some fashion, at least. Good reading courtesy of Gabra Zackman, by the way.
I finished the book a few days later, and have been thinking on it since. What do I really want to say about it? I think I've figured it out now, so here's my review.

The Story:
"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."

Disclaimer
I received a print ARC from the publisher upon my own request. I love Lovecraft's works, so getting my hands on it was a given. I also picked up the audiobook via Audible.

The Review:
Winter Tide was a great extension of Lovecraft's mythos. Ruthanna Emrys impressed me with the original Aphra short story The Litany of Earth when I read it last year and this sequel novel continues that trend. While not exactly dark and disturbing on Lovecraft's level, the angle Emrys based her approach around is a very satisfying one to see explored.
This novel almost didn't happen. Litany was a stand-alone story with no planned sequels. Thankfully, the author got enough requests and encouragement that she ended up writing this book. For what my opinion is worth, I believe that this was a fantastic thing to happen to fans of Lovecraft and the Mythos as a whole.

Over the years, especially the past five or so, Lovecraft has received a lot of flak from all sides for his personal views on race, sex and the likes. Many of his views are, of course, reflected in his writing. His stories have been taken apart systematically to expose and theorize on his xenophobic tendencies, and sometimes that even resulted into pretty weird new interpretations of his works.

One of these stories is The Thing on the Doorstep. Fun fact: I believe that was the first HPL story I ever read, and I still have a soft spot for it. In the story, the protagonist details the reasons why he supposedly murdered his best friend. It develops into a weird mind-frying body-switching tale full of odd concepts and horrifying ideas. One interpretation of the story comes down to topics of sexual identity. I personally am not a fan of these, because I'm more intrigued by the Cosmic Horror angle, but speculation was rampant for a while. It is an interesting topic to discuss, at any rate.

Now, I'd highly recommend reading The Thing on the Doorstep before you read Winter Tide, because Emrys used it as a somewhat big factor in her novel. To her credit, she combined some of the literal Lovecraft message of the story with the more out-there interpretations and allowed both sides to co-exist within the setting, while maintaining the "canonicity" of the Cosmic Horror angle.
I've seen a lot of attempts to modify the Mythos canon, as far as it can be said to exist, to better suit modern sensibilities, which often makes me want to gouge my eyes out and beg great Cthulhu to take my sanity. I credit Emrys highly for finding her own niche, in a lot of ways, to tell her stories in, all with their own little interpretations, viewpoints and messages, without attempting to reinvent the wheel. It is obvious that she has a lot of respect and passion for HPL's fiction, and while likely very at odds with the man on an "ideological" level, her way of showing that in Winter Tide and Litany is for the most part subtle and effective.
This was very important to me on a personal level, so excuse me for spending so many words on elaborating on that. I believe that the concern is worth addressing, however.

Now on to Winter Tide itself.
Aphra Marsh is a survivor of the Innsmouth raids, which are based around Lovecraft's The Shadow over Innsmouth. Again I would highly recommend reading this one first to get the most out of Emrys' novel. Aphra, as told in Litany, made a contact with the FBI and this time around she is asked to accompany agent Spector to old Arkham to counter a supposed plot by russian agents to learn the art of body-switching magic.
Spector offers her and her brother Caleb the opportunity to study the collection of books taken from Innsmouth during the raids and kept at Miskatonic University. Getting their hands on their family and friends' old books, journals and so on wasn't something Aphra could have passed up on.
Other characters join the trip from San Francisco to Arkham, and yet more get introduced along the way, leading to an unexpectedly large cast to look out for.

And here lies one of the problems I have with the novel. There's just so many intriguing little bits that I wanted more from some than the book could realistically deliver. Neko, Aphra's "sister" of her adopted japanese family that she and Caleb met during her time in the camps over the course of the second World War, could have used more of a role here. I loved the scenes involving her, and her relationship with Aphra was beautifully explored, but for large sections her role in the ongoing events was very negligible. As new characters got introduced, old ones were sidelined more and more. Of course, the new characters can join Aphra's growing circle of students; it was nice to see her own little family growing, but some of it happened a little too fast and easily here.

That is not to say I didn't also appreciate the new characters that appeared. Not at all! Audrey, one of Aphra's new students, was one of the most exciting and dynamic parts of the book. She was clever, had depth and saved some butts. Professor Trumbull too added a LOT to the book that I didn't expect. It just bugs me a little that some of the early themes from closer to home had to make way for emergent themes to the degree that they did.

This also includes the initial contrivance for Aphra going to Arkham and Innsmouth: To find out about the russian spy plot and foil it. Less than halfway through, I was feeling like nobody really cared about this point anymore. Other things took center stage easily and unopposed, and the way this plotpoint was resolved in the book felt... weak. It really felt more like a MacGuffin than a vital part of the book.

Much of the narrative is spent commuting between Professor Trumbull's home, two universities, Innsmouth and even a museum. There are a lot of sections where Aphra and co are simply researching texts and finding familiar handwriting in journals. Introspection and musings on the future of the Deep Ones are prominent, whereas action is left by the wayside. The novel has a lot to say, whether through dialogue or Aphra's narration, so at times it could be considered a little slow. When the climax appears on the page, things get a bit frantic but damn exciting, however. That, too, strikes me as pretty lovecraftian.

I'm aware that this may seem very negative. Please don't take it that way. The book as a whole was insanely enjoyable to me. There were so many little nuggets for Mythos fans, so many very human moments and relationship developments, I got deeply invested in Aphra's journey and the people in her life. For all the cosmic horror and magic, at the core Emrys has written a strong, human novel that bridges cultural differences easily but not cheaply. It was very charming.
Not exactly as dark and desperate as Lovecraft's works would be. Not nearly as cynical and nihilistic (though definitely not weak on it either), but full of relatable feelings and invitations to take a different approach to people's differences. It is also very pro-family, which is to say it triple-underlines the importance of having a home and people to rely on and trust. In that, it is very different from HPL, who would usually write stories about suspicion, distrust and doubt. His narrators are unreliable, whereas Aphra is very honest and caring under all the painful experiences.

It is a strange thing that a book that is in many ways almost antithetical to Howard's works can feel so familiar and respectful while shifting the perspective on the Mythos as a whole in such a profound way. It didn't contradict the horror inherent in HPL's cosmos, but it added a layer of understanding that Lovecraft himself would likely never have offered. It maintains the dangers and risks while establishing a level of control.

Honestly, this is very tough for me to put into words. I adored Winter Tide. It has problems. But it also has a certain charme that pulled me in and makes me ask for more. Emrys wrote many characters I cared for, and if one of my biggest complaints is that I didn't get to see enough of every single one of them to satisfy my curiosity, then that seems more good than bad to me. They all appealed to me for one reason or another.
As a fan of cosmic horror, I am pleased. I want to read more about Aphra Marsh and her Confluence.

Winter Tide feels like a journey of discovering one's place in a ever-changing world full of mystery and the mundane. It defies many expectations while fulfilling a lot of hopes I had for it. Despite a few nitpicks, it feels like a logical and passionate extension of the Mythos and incorporated many elements thereof while adding much of its own to it. It can't have been an easy task, but it was one Ruthanna Emrys nonetheless succeeded in.


Winter Tide on Goodreads

About the Author

I'm known as DarkChaplain across the internet, and call myself a passionate gamer and book enthusiast. I have been blogging mostly about games for a couple of years, but finally found my way to reviewing a different medium: Books. Honestly, I prefer that job so far.
Follow Me on Twitter @TheDarkChaplain


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