Having read Emry’s The Litany of Earth, I was curious and trepidatious about reading this one when Amazon Vine offered a review copy.
The trepidation turned out to be justified.
(An alternate perspective, though agreeing on the slow pacing, is at Battered, Tattered, Yellowed, & Creased.)
Review: Winter Tide, Ruthanna Emrys, 2017.
For a book full of talk about blood, this novel is remarkably bloodless.
There’s blood drawn for magic spells. There’s the blood narrator Aphra Marsh sees in the “interior sea” of the bodies of those she communes with her in the Aeonist rites. There’s the blood of wounds.
What there isn’t is the blood of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. This book doesn’t just eviscerate the Mythos. It bleeds out the paranoia and wonder of Lovecraft’s stories to present a tepid story with a checklist of characters unsurprisingly and resolutely, right down to a concluding insinuation of one character’s lesbianism, drawn from Social Justice Casting.
Set a year-and-a-half after the events of Emrys’ The Litany of Earth, Aphra is approached by Spector, an agent of the United States government, concerned that Soviets will gain access to magical secrets. He recruits Aphra to help him stop possible Soviet use of magical techniques in the fraught Cold War year of 1948.
That means a return to the East Coast, to Miskatonic University and Innsmouth where she was snatched and then interned in a concentration camp, the result of events detailed in H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”. There Aphra will meet her brother Caleb, another former internee.
In tow are Neko, a Japanese-American interned with Aphra and Aphra’s employer Charlie, a homosexual. Spector, not only a homosexual but a Jew under suspicion by his employers, comes along.
At Miskatonic University, Aphra will draw others into her circle of espionage and magical tutelage: Dawson, a black woman coerced into working for the government; Audrey, a bright, impetuous student who is not what she seems; Mary, the brains behind a U. S. intelligence group running a parallel operation to Spector’s but relegated to a mere secretary’s pay; and Trumbull, Miskatonic’s sole female professor and actually possessed by a Yith, the alien race in Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Out of Time”.
Do I have to mention that no white, male, heterosexual, gentile characters need apply for positions of competence or honesty?
There is a weakly developed plot about Marsh’s circle finding a Soviet agent who may have learned the body-switching magic featured in Lovecraft’s “The Thing on the Doorstep”, but mostly there is a lot of magic rituals and talk about the three races of man representing air, sea, and earth. It’s not even as interesting as August Derleth’s misguided attempt to correlate the four elements to Lovecraft’s “gods”.
The magic is bland. The climax brings to mind clichés about clucking hens and girlie obsession with making connections.
Emrys, in her acknowledgements, claims she strived to appeal to those who love Lovecraft, hate Lovecraft, and “that love Lovecraft not”.
Lovecraft fans will probably hate this one because Emrys willfully distorts the Mythos to present a heroine who is just a member of another misunderstood, unjustly persecuted, and victimized race.
Now, plenty of writers, even before Lovecraft died, took bits of the Mythos and turned it to their own ends in all sorts of settings and in all sorts of ways from outright sequels to merely dropping a name from one of his stories. Some successful stories, not at all paranoid or horrific, have used the Mythos.
Emrys deliberately presents a tale where the residents of Innsmouth were never a threat, where it is regular humans that are the menace.
We get the claim that the Deep One-human hybrids of Innsmouth were loyal Americans who fought for America in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. Actually, in the “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, the Deep Ones arrived around 1846. And they killed members of the town who resisted their occupation.
Further dulling of Lovecraft’s theme of alien menace, R’lyeh is mentioned but not the prophecies of what happens on Cthulhu’s return to Earth as detailed in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu”:
The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and reveling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame as a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.
Yes, it’s another example of a modern tendency in the fantastic genres to see no conflict as ever really unsolvable and intractable, that the seemingly menacing alien can be dealt with by understanding and isn’t really threatening.
Here the menace and paranoia are gone and replaced with banalities: stoicism retooled as Aeonist emphasis on the transitory nature of things and the obvious, especially in a post-World War Two setting, observation that political alliances are temporary.
To be fair, Emrys does do some interesting things with the Mythos. The Yith may be at the center of the Aeonist faith, but their cold dispassion and parasitic techniques for racial survival start to wear thin on Aphra and her allies. We also get an intriguing visit to the narrator of “The Thing on the Doorstep” – still in the insane asylum.
The only scene that really had any power for me is Aphra’s reunion with her Deep Ones ancestor. At least one race here is allowed to celebrate blood, “soil”, and culture – and realizes that actually having babies is necessary to preserve them.
I’m also wondering if the narrator of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” will show up as a character in the sequel.
Not that I’m likely to read it.
Those who do not know Lovecraft aren’t likely to be impressed by this tale with its long stretches of magic rites.
Haters of Lovecraft may very well like this novel.
Somehow I can see this novel featuring in Castalia House future denunciations of modern fantastic literature.