We’re All Monsters: Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide

Savvy readers will recall that one of my favorite things from last year was Ruthanna Emrys’ “The Litany of Earth” (which you can read for free at the link). I found out about Emrys’ fiction when a favorite writer of mine was singing the praises of her then forthcoming novel, Winter Tide. Shortly after that glowing review, I found and devoured “The Litany of Earth.” I was hooked immediately and have been eagerly awaiting the next ticket into Aphra Marsh’s world ever since.

Winter Tide (2017) WinterTide.jpeg
Written by: Ruthanna Emrys
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 368 (Kindle)
Series: Book One of The Innsmouth Legacy
Publisher: Tor.com

Why I Chose It: Several authors that I greatly respect and admire gave high praise to this novel. I was inspired by their comments to read the prequel novelette and loved it.

The premise:

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.

Very mild character spoilers, but nothing major will be divulged.


First, I must point out the obvious. This story is startlingly unique among my (admittedly limited; see note below) experience with Lovecraftian fiction: in Emrys’ version of things, the gods are no less horrific and terrible, but they are revered by heroine Aphra and her people (who eventually evolve into sea-dwelling Deep Ones that reside beneath the waves off the coast of Massachusetts). Our protagonist and her family are usually portrayed as monsters in the various stories they star in. Here, we see things from their point of view, taking everything Lovecraft created and turning it beautifully on its head.

I hesitate to say that this isn’t a plot-heavy novel. There is a plot, of course, but the primary focus is on Aphra, her chosen family, and their friends and enemies. The plot is a broad, thin umbrella that stretches over the characters, their growth, and the intricacies of their shifting relationships to each other. This is not a bad thing whatsoever. It simply leads to a different reading experience than a reader might expect based on the back cover copy. It almost feels as if Emrys set out to tell one story but then fell into the complexities of this impressive set of diverse characters. Again, I must stress that this is not a bad thing.

Family is a common theme here.  Aphra has only her brother left with her on land after the terrible government raid that decimated her hometown. She is fortunate enough to find a new family to love during the darkest period of her life: the time she spent imprisoned by the government in the middle of the desert. In Emrys’ version of history, the Innsmouth refugees are imprisoned long before the government decides to round up the Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens during World War II. The beginning of the Japanese internment begins as there are only three Innsmouth citizens left in the camp. The Kotos, one of the many Japanese families that appeared at the camp, “adopt” Aphra and her brother Caleb. The Marsh siblings are later released with the Japanese families, but it is implied that this is only due to the prison guards essentially forgetting that any Innsmouth citizens were even left at the camp. The Marsh siblings live with the Kotos in San Francisco until Caleb decides to return to the east coast in an attempt to recover Innsmouth’s precious books. Later events widen Aphra’s circle enough to include her employer and student, Charlie, and a young woman named Audrey. Through events that I will not describe here, for the sake of avoiding spoilers, Charlie and Audrey grow to become as precious to Aphra as Caleb and her adopted siblings. The importance of family bonds is emphasized again and again with one clear message ringing through: chosen family is as essential and special as blood family.

Another common theme is the idea that we are all, in our own fashion, a “monster.” A delightful aspect of this story is that it takes the things that Lovecraft hated the most (women, people of color, LGBTQ individuals) and turns them into the heroes of the piece. Lovecraft is infamous for his racism and xenophobia. Emrys’ response to those attitudes is to populate her novel with brilliant women, gay characters, and people of color, all of whom intertwine in various relationships all across the spectrum, from sibling to lover. The worst perpetrators in the book are the so-called normal people. This is not an innovative idea in and of itself, but Emrys skillfully uses this trope to show that even the “normal” monsters can be reformed into thinking, open-minded individuals. This is a very heartening thought that allows the story to end on a hopeful note.

Speaking of that hopeful note, Aphra’s growth and emotional healing by the end of the novel was beautifully portrayed. When the story opens, Aphra is still feeling the pain of having lost her parents, friends, and home. Things are very close to the surface for her. She has somewhat moved past the trauma, and her new life in California has allowed her to heal, but she doesn’t have a great deal of peace. After the story carries her back to the ruins of her home, she is able to reconnect with her water-dwelling ancestors and her past. Through her interactions with the Elders and her newfound bonds with several other characters, Aphra’s emotional healing grows stronger and deeper. It is genuinely lovely to see this character evolve into something calmer and more grown up than she was when the story began.

Where will Aphra and her new family go from here?  It’s hard to say, especially while attempting to avoid spoilers.  The whole world seems open and filled with possibilities.  The title for the next volume, Deep Roots, could imply any number of things for these people, especially given what we learn about a certain character during Winter Tide.

In Conclusion: This isn’t necessarily a novel for everyone. It’s not action-packed, edge of your seat exciting. There is action, and there are plenty of tense moments, but by and large, this is a quiet, thoughtful book that dives deeply into the complexities of trauma, healing, relationships, and family. I look forward to reading this novel again. I believe that it is one of those stories that grows upon re-visitation. I cannot wait to see just how rich this tapestry truly is.


Author’s Note: I will confess to being a novice when it comes to H.P. Lovecraft’s actual fiction. My first exposure to the extended mythos came in Neil Gaiman’s short story “A Study in Emerald” (Breakdown here by Emrys herself along with her colleague, Anne M. Pillsworth). As such, I cannot speak to how well Emrys’ fiction fits into the grand scheme of things, but it is delightfully unique in its portrayal of Lovecraft’s “monsters” as sympathetic beings.

5 Comments

  • Shara White May 2, 2017 at 12:33 pm

    You’ve got me wanting to read this one…. oh, I need so much more time to READ things! All the pretty things!

    Reply
    • Casey May 2, 2017 at 6:38 pm

      You really should! It’s lovely.

      Reply
  • davidbrawley May 3, 2017 at 9:03 am

    Okay, added to my “to read” list!

    Reply
    • Casey May 3, 2017 at 11:07 am

      Fantastic! I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

      Reply
  • I Write For A Fantastic Fanzine | TITLE GOES HERE, CASEY May 6, 2017 at 10:53 pm

    […] Tuesday morning, I was on deck with my review of the gorgeous Winter Tide.  Long story short, this is a beautiful book, and I enjoyed every word of […]

    Reply

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