Some of you might remember a review I wrote last year, where I looked into “The Litany of Earth” by Ruthanna Emrys. I was downright fascinated at the way she offered a new perspective on religion, internment camps, and the Cthulhu Mythos, all in one go. I knew I had to read her latest novel, Winter Tide, and see where the adventures of Aphra Marsh would go next. Thanks to a giveaway on Goodreads, I managed to get a free copy to enjoy.
In 1928, the US government rounded up the families of Innsmouth, relocating them by force to internment camps to study their biology and separate them from their faith in the Deep Ones. Years later, a federal agent approaches Aphra Marsh, one of the camp survivors, to help them unravel a plot by Communist spies that involves body-swapping and other dark secrets stolen from Miskatonic University. This means that Aphra will reunite with her brother Caleb and venture back to her home, piecing together what remains of her culture in the face of human cruelty.
Aphra Marsh’s character isn’t all that different from who we saw in “The Litany of Earth.” Her role in this story is essentially the same here: to fulfill a mission from the government to root out dangerous people using dark magic that’s linked to her Aeonist roots. However, she has a large following now, with her young Japanese friend Neko, who wants a life outside San Francisco; her estranged brother Caleb Marsh, who is bitter and still clings to the Old Ways; and her new pupil Audrey, who is eager to adapt and delve into the mysteries of Aeonism. There are also returning characters like the bookseller Charlie Day and federal agent Ron Spector, but I honestly never got all that deep an impression from either of them.
I did like (at first, anyway) the addition of Professor Trumbull, who is much more than she first appears to be. She stood on a different plane than Aphra, steeped in far more mysteries and horrors of the universe, and with far less sympathy for the “lesser” races. I also had to admit that the Miskatonic student Audrey was a surprise when she first appeared, but I soon grew to appreciate her in the same way I did Aphra’s friend Neko.
As for the plot itself? I must admit, I was excited when I started reading, but as one chapter progressed to the next, my enthusiasm began to wane. I went from the thrill of Aphra getting entangled with her rituals and Spector, the man from the FBI, to a slow-paced disappointment with watching her pore over the same books and secrets, with little sense of anything really being accomplished. At some point, I forgot that I was reading a story that had promised (from its back cover blurb) to be something of a Cold War-era spy thriller. Because all I remembered were the many hours spent on the campus at Miskatonic University, where nothing really happened. No confrontations, no subversions or ambushes. Just a story plodding along, but I was still on Chapter 14 when I realized this. Winter Tide is not a book for anyone expecting fierce pursuits or explosive confrontations.
Even so, Emrys knows her stuff when it comes to the post-war era and the eldritch weirdness of the Cthulhu Mythos. She fills her pages with scenes of G-Men storming college campuses, Yith who are fluent in Enochian, subtle hints of socially accepted racism, and guttural prayers to Shub-Niggurath. Longtime fans of Cold War literature can read into the politics that the author puts on display here, and the same goes for Lovecraftian horror fans and the staggering amount of lore that is alluded to or referenced outright.
But is the novel worth a read? Well, if you like delving into the religious rites of strange cultures or digging through layers of Red Scare-style paranoia, then you might like this. I must admit that Aphra Marsh is, by herself, a neat concept for a protagonist, being more alien than her human peers, but still human enough for us readers to feel for her perilous road.
Bibliography: Emrys, Ruthanna. Winter Tide. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2017.