In the acknowledgements section of Winter Tide, Ruthanna Emrys talks about three types of readers when it comes to H.P. Lovecraft’s work: those who love it, those who hate it, and those who would prefer not to read it given that author’s racism and anti-Semitism. Much as I understand the author’s influence in SFF, I am one of those who’d rather not read Lovecraft’s work – but I am somewhat attracted to reworks of it, especially the more recent subversions/revisions of his work (the excellent Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw comes to mind).
Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys is one such subversion: it offers a Lovecraftian tale with Lovecraftian mythos, without Lovecraftian racism. In fact, knowing that author’s views on people of color, I’d expect he’d be horrified by it, which makes me positively gleeful that it exists in principle. It helps that’s a pretty good book on its own and approaching it as someone who is not overly familiar with Lovecraft’s oeuvre, I don’t think I missed out on anything. The elements of Lovecraft mythos are explained well enough within the story in a way that it’s perfectly clear. Beyond that, this is essentially a story about identity, found families, wrapped in a cozy mystery. With magic. And monsters. Except the monsters are not exactly who you expect them to be.
In here, Lovecraft’s Deep Ones are not horrendous monsters to be destroyed. They are only one of three different species of humans, inhabitants of the ocean who spend their early lives as humans on land, before transitioning. Back in the 20s though, the US Government rounded up the people from Innsmouth – at least those who survived the raid – and interned them in camps. Only two children survived: Aphra and Caleb Marsh. They are ultimately forgotten and when WWII breaks out, the two are joined in the camp by Japanese-American citizens who have also been rounded up by the government and then released when the war is over.
As the story starts, it’s post WWII and the Cold War is brewing. The US Government, worried that Russian spies are gathering information about magic secrets that could allow them to take over bodies, recruit Aphra and Caleb to help. FBI agent Ron Spector convinces Aphra to travel to Miskatonic University to find the truth in its files (and in doing so, a chance to rescue some of her people’s diaries and books which are now stored at the University).
More than a book about magic or monsters, this is a story deeply concerned with the question of identity and knowledge, of history and tradition and, above all, with the connections between people. Aphra doesn’t travel alone: there is her brother Caleb with her, and she brings along her fellow student of magic Charlie (a wounded war veteran) and her heart-sister Neko, from the Japanese-American family who all but adopted her and Caleb. Upon their arrival, their group grows to include not only Dawson, an African American woman who also works for the government, but also Audrey, another student who grows incredibly close to Aphra. This group forms a connection that is in many ways deeper than blood and more interesting to read than anything else.
One thing I was a bit worried about before diving into the story was the fact that the book is set in a specific historical period, depicting real, historical, systemic racism and sexism. Given that the story is also about the plight and persecution of Fantasy monsters, I worried about how elements of real versus fantasy would unfold. I am not a huge fan of Fantasy monsters being used as stand-in metaphors for real-life racism and sexism, and I am glad to report that the author was able blend both threads together in a way that didn’t give more weight to the Fantasy.
Filled with people of color, queers and women, Winter Tide is a delicious, rich concoction that centers its story on its characters. I really enjoyed it, and I want to read more about Aphra and her found family.
In Booksmugglerish: 8 out of 10