Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

“Even a single day, on a single world, can contain both atrocity and kindness, storm-tossed seas and burning deserts. On such a world, lives may never touch and yet still give solace by the reminder that one’s own troubles are not universal.”

Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys is a sequel of sorts to H.P. Lovecraft’s “Shadow Over Innsmouth” with references to his other stories thrown in. In flashbacks, we learn that the monstrous half-fish people from Lovecraft’s story who survived the government raid on their town were put into an internment camp. Later, when World War II breaks out, Japanese Americans join them as fellow prisoners.

When our story starts, shortly after the end of World War II, Innsmouth native Aphra Marsh is living with a Japanese family she grew close to during her time in the camp. Since she’s an occult expert, a government agent tracks her down and asks her to help him investigate the possibility that the Russians have acquired the ability to swap bodies (see Lovecraft’s story “The Thing at the Doorstep”) in order to spy on the U.S.

Aphra assembles a large group of friends to go with her to Arkham’s library to do some research. (Most of the book involves doing research in libraries, which wasn’t boring at first, but eventually got that way.) Purely by chance, she ends up meeting several more extraordinary people along the way who she also recruits to help with the research.

We end up with a fairly bloated cast of characters, many of whom don’t do much plot-wise. I think the reason for this is Emrys wanted to include as many marginalized characters as possible without leaving anyone out. We have Japanese-American characters, an African-American character, a Jewish character, a disabled character, a couple homosexual characters, and a few paranormal characters as well. “We’re all monsters here,” a character says at one point, remarking on the fact that they’re all viewed as outsiders. Discrimination is an important theme in this book, however, because there are so many characters, we don’t get much of a chance to get to know most of them. The story would have been more satisfying if we had fewer characters that we got to know better.

Although she occasionally uses words like “cyclopean” (if you follow the author’s Lovecraft reread series on Tor.com, you know she just had to use the word cyclopean), I don’t think Emrys quite captures the purple prose Lovecraft is famous for. But that’s okay. She has a style of her own. We don’t need yet another person trying to be the modern Lovecraft. In fact, I’d classify Winter Tide as more of an urban fantasy than a horror story. There wasn’t any sense of building dread or any terrifying moments. Plus, it does contain a paranormal romance subplot like much of urban fantasy does.

I liked a lot about this story, but I didn’t end up liking it as much as I wanted to. I like the concept of using Lovecraft’s own mythos to challenge his racism and misogyny, but while it started out promising, Winter Tide didn’t do enough to hold my interest throughout. The story didn’t feel like it really ended either, since the Russian plot was never really resolved.

The main theme of Lovecraft has always been how insignificant humans are and how the universe doesn’t care about our well-being any more than we care about the bugs under our feet. Emrys touches on this idea: “Most of the sun’s other worlds lay empty this aeon, but some had once borne life native or invasive, and others would bear it again. Distant suns, too, attended worlds that bore or would bear life, and stranger minds waited at the void’s edge. Darkness and cold would take them all, and the stories of most would not survive their own suns.” However, Lovecraft’s nihilism is tempered by a bit of optimism. For example, Aphra says at one point, “When the universe doesn’t care, someone has to.”

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