What I knew about Winter Tide before I read it was that Ruthanna Emrys had written a sort of homage to H.P. Lovecraft – but not the kind that we’ve seen all too many of in recent years. Instead, what I knew is that it was something unique; less of a pure homage to Lovecraft and in some ways a response, or a story that felt inspired by Lovecraft’s world but had no interest in exploring the style he had created.
Here’s, perhaps, what I wish I had known: what all of that means is that, yes, Ruthanna Emrys has written a Lovecraftian story…but one that’s not a horror story, nor has any interest in being one. Instead, it uses Lovecraft’s complex cosmology to tell the story of the town of Innsmouth – or, more accurately, the few survivors of that town after the government raid depicted in Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.” What might they have been like, wonders Emrys? What if what the agents saw wasn’t the horrors Lovecraft depicted, but simply saw an unfamiliar religion, one that felt primal and dark, but truly was just something alien to them? Such a reaction – fear, imprisonment, government action – certainly wouldn’t have been atypical of the period. What might it be like if you envisioned a world where Lovecraft’s tales happened, but they represented the fringes and the lunatics of that religion, and not the norm?
If you can picture that, you might have a sense of what Winter Tide is going to be – that, instead of the Lovecraftian horrors, what you get is a story of outsiders who are feared by much of society; whose religion embraces the unknown and places humanity as a tiny speck in the cosmos; who believe and practice magic not for power, but for knowledge; who see the fringe lunatics that practice the darker side of their religion as horrors, and not representative of what they do. And if, perhaps, some of this seems darkly familiar to you, Emrys underlines her point by giving the Innsmouth survivors a group they met and bond with – the Japanese citizens placed in internment camps during World War II.
What this all comes to is a fascinating, wholly unique take on Lovecraft’s legacy, one that’s inspired less by his prose or his unspeakable horrors and more by the underlying ideas of that horror: that mankind is just a speck in the universe, looking outward an unknowable creatures that might as well be gods to us – creatures that maybe don’t even care about us. All of this is integrated into a loose plot that finds our heroine trying to reconnect to her roots in an effort to work with the same government that attacked Innsmouth – this time to prevent the Soviets from using some of their magics to win the Cold War.
But really, Winter Tide is less about its story than it is the mood of the thing, and the immersion in a world of magic, strange gods, and fascinating creatures. It’s a world where unknowable things can take notice of us in horrible ways, but also a world in which outsider races commune under the ocean, or ancient groups find unity in back alleys. Winter Tide has a story, but what’s lingered with me is the strangely quiet, thoughtful take on a mythos that’s so often been about madness and devastation. As a book, it feels a bit slow and meandering, but as an experience, it’s something wholly unique and fascinating.
Side note: Winter Tide is actually the second story Emrys has written in this universe. The first was a novelette entitled “The Litany of Earth”; it’s included with the eBook version of Winter Tide, but having read it, I can’t help but feel that it provides an easier entryway into Emrys’s world, as well as setting up some of the main characters nicely. Luckily, it’s available here for free on Tor.com; it might give you a sense of how Emrys’s world before you jump into Winter Tide.