Book cover: Winter Tide - Ruthanna EmrysThe American government imprisoned Aphra’s people and let them die in the desert, far from the sea. Now they need her help, and have an irresistible offer to make. But can outcasts ever truly win the trust of a government that persecuted them? And can they trust that government in return?

Winter Tide is a slow, gentle novel of loyalty, friendship, family and otherworldly threat. Built on Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, it presumably has him spinning in his grave at a rate of knots sufficient to affect local gravity given his well-documented and unflattering views on race and gender. Here, Ruthanna Emrys’s heroine forges strong bonds with a diverse group of underdogs and wins small victories because of her endurance and compassion.

Set years after the destruction of Innsmouth at the hands of the US government, Winter Tide is the story of Aphra Marsh, one of only two known survivors of the internment camps. Now living in San Francisco, she has been adopted into a Japanese family she met in the camps and quietly practices ritual magic with Charlie, who owns the bookshop where she works.

But as a descendant of the Deep Ones, Aphra will never escape the watchful eye of the US government. She intermittently assists the FBI in investigating emerging cults to assess whether they are threats, but only her handler Spector trusts her – and only he feels any guilt for what was done to her people in the name of national security. More chilling than the weird sunken civilisation of the Deep Ones is the way the genocide at Innsmouth is erased by bureaucratic euphemisms.

Winter Tide prods at ideas of loyalty and belonging, acknowledging the ways that the state excludes and punishes outsiders – and the wrongs those considered outsiders are expected to swallow simply because they are different. The bonds forged within Spector’s motley research group begin with their shared experiences on the edges of American society. Even Spector’s conscience is informed in part by the fact that he is Jewish, mistrusted by masters who fear he will be more loyal to newly-formed Israel than to America, and gay (which will end his career if the FBI find out). Both Aphra’s adoptive sister Neko and African American FBI mole Dawson voice a need to do something for themselves or to have something that can’t be taken away from them; like Aphra and Caleb, their lives are precarious, and they do not take safety for granted.

But ostensibly, this is a mythos tale: the Marshes are sent to Miskatonic University to search through the books and papers that were seized from Innsmouth in the hope of finding works that focus on the forbidden magic of body-swapping. Instead, they find a Yith (an immortal race of archivists who are the only ones permitted such magic) and a rival FBI team determined to paint them as a threat. Add in university students fascinated by the rumours and rituals of Innsmouth, and their mission grows ever more complicated.

It also grows increasingly emotionally charged. Aphra has agreed to help in part because her people have always punished body-swappers, but also to gain access to the writings of her people. She and Caleb pore over handwritten notes in the margins, seeking journals to remind themselves of a childhood that was ripped away from them. Ultimately, they must make contact with their people below the waves to help them. It’s affecting, but also uncomfortable. They seek comfort from their grandfather, but must also break the news to him that his children are dead. He offers his protection – but also makes explicit that Aphra and Caleb now bear responsibility for re-building the ‘spawning grounds’ (the Deep Ones apparently can only reproduce whilst in human form on land). This is difficult for Aphra in particular, who is obliquely represented as asexual.

All of these elements should have made Winter Tide a sure-fire winner for me. These are themes and situations that speak deeply to me – but for some reason, the book itself didn’t. I struggled to become invested in the characters, laying the book aside about halfway through with no intention of finishing it. However, it stayed with me. I kept finding myself thinking of Aphra and her dilemma, and ultimately returned to read to the finish.

In the end, I think the fault is mine: I lack enthusiasm for Lovecraft’s inventions, and Winter Tide hasn’t changed that. While I have more questions than answers about many aspects of the world-building, I still don’t care enough to seek those answers out. Perhaps worse, I had just enough knowledge of the mythos to find Winter Tide frustrating for referencing context it doesn’t explore (because it doesn’t need to – it’s not relevant to the story in hand) – if I’d had no knowledge and those references had whizzed past me unnoticed I might have been happier.

There is lots to like here: the way in which Aphra forges a new family through shared ritual. Her willingness to stand up to anyone, including her elders, in defence of others who need protection. The low-key normalisation of queer relationships. The persistent message that we are all human and deserving of respect. The idea that your blood does not define you, and that you can choose your own path (although I remain uncomfortable with the subplot about the spawning grounds). Yet while I appreciated it all, I didn’t really enjoy it.

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I’m told that I might have been better to read The Litany of Earth first, and I pass that on to those coming in cold. Certainly Winter Tide begins with so much baggage that reading the prequel seems like sound advice.