Review By Kris Vyas-Myall
There are two interesting recent trends in writing; well-respected short fiction writers releasing fantastic first genre novels (such as Yoon Ha Lee, Ken Liu or Mary Rickert), and the use of Lovecraft to explore the history of racism in America (e.g. The Ballad of Black Tom or Lovecraft Country). This intersects both of these as Ruthanna Emrys – an author I have been following since the brilliant Litany of the Earth came out on Tor.com – continues the reflexive Lovecraftian universe she put together in that earlier tale.
Whilst there is a bit of a thriller style plotline to drive the tale along this, for me, was a story of mood and ideas. This is technically a tale of godlike beings from beyond time, and Red Scare style body-swapping, but that is really window dressing. At its heart it is a story that launches itself at the way America has treated those that it considers to be aliens or outsiders and how culture and history, family and home is destroyed. In particular, it takes aim at the history of Japanese internment during World War Two but also touches on elements of many other events in US (and Western) history.
This could be problematic but, I would contend, Emrys is skilful in navigating this as she puts the citizens of Innsmouth as another group directly involved in these events rather than taking someone else’s history and appropriating for other purposes. As such, Aphra regularly has to navigate prejudice and micro-aggressions which are both specific and universalistic e.g.:
“’I am as human as you. Just a different kind.’ And truly sick of having to repeat that assertion to people who supposedly respected me.”
“’Would it be so bad to tell people? … It might shut them up’ ‘…people have studied us more than enough.’”
Although these situations are the encounters between People of the Water (e.g. the former people of Innsmouth) and the People of the Air (e.g. the dominant American group), the treatment of various different groups as being less than human or treated as some object of curiosity is a common stain across Western history.
Whilst these are the main ideas it employs, the real area in which it excels is in mood. Throughout we get such a great sense of loss and longing evoked, as the place and people Aphra and Caleb thought they would be around for centuries are completely washed away, and the understanding of their culture and religion has been demonised by People of the Air telling falsehoods.
At the same time, there is introduced a fascinating counterpoint. That is a real belief that The People of the Air may well wipe themselves out soon with nuclear war and be replaced by The People of the Water. So whilst The People of the Air may be doing their best to obliterate the history of other groups, it is seen as inevitable that they will really be the ones who fall and are replaced. Not by conquest but by their own hands. For as they survive by destroying others we have the sense they will inevitably destroy themselves.
Further within this, much of the motivation Aphra has is to recover the past that has been lost to her, as she attempts to reassemble what has been stolen in their past by White Americans. What were once important or religious artefacts are now put into research libraries for the perusal of academics. Once again, this has been all too common a practice in Western history but it is often something which is overlooked for how much emotional harm it can cause to displaced communities and why these items would have such significance.
What I love about the way Emrys goes about this is that she is explicit but not didactic. It would be all too easy to turn this into an angry essay but as we are pulled along with Aphra’s journey it becomes more powerful because we experience the world as she does, and get to feel how this would impact upon her.
However, as there is such a focus on mood and ideas I do feel that some other elements may have fallen by the wayside slightly. Outside of Aphra many of the characters are a bit bland. Even Neko and Caleb, who get the most development, can sometimes feel a bit short-changed. Much like the more thriller-esque elements of the plot alluded to earlier they are really here to serve the ideas and not vice-versa. This is a style of writing I enjoy but it is not one that is necessarily for everyone.
Winter Tide is an evocative and cerebral debut novel that takes an interesting approach to Lovecraft’s work. Building on her earlier novelette, Emrys uses these themes to take an uncomfortable look at the history of race relations in America. As such the plot and character do sometimes take a back seat to the ideas and mood but it is a book well worth experiencing.