Series: Innsmouth Legacy #1
The last daughter of Innsmouth returns to Miskatonic University in this bold and compassionate new take on the Cthulhu mythos.
After attacking Devil's Reef in 1928, the U.S. government rounded up the people of Innsmouth and took them to the desert, far from their ocean, their Deep One ancestors, and their sleeping god Cthulhu. Only Aphra and Caleb Marsh survived the camps, and they emerged without a past or a future.
The government that stole Aphra's life now needs her help. FBI agent Ron Spector believes that Communist spies have stolen dangerous magical secrets from Miskatonic University, secrets that could turn the Cold War hot in an instant, and hasten the end of the human race.
Aphra must return to the ruins of her home, gather scraps of her stolen history, and assemble a new family to face the darkness of human nature.
Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys is a book that I would never have picked up had it not been on lists of asexual representation because Emrys has said Aphra is asexual in interviews. That is to say: I am not the target audience for this book by a very large margin. I’m not a horror reader and pretty much all I know about Lovecraft’s mythos is what a then-friend who loves it told me about it. Oh, and the two Lovecraftian Hugo-nominated novellas. But that’s it.
So, before I go any further, please bear that in mind: I’m keenly aware of the fact that there are a lot of details and strokes that I’ve missed just because I don’t know what the narrative is doing with certain aspects of Lovecraft’s concepts and ideas. (If it helps: imagine trying to discuss how Marillier’s Heart’s Blood deconstructs Beauty and the Beast without ever having read the fairytale before.) I mean, I can tell you that the book is addressing the misogyny in Lovecraft’s work, but that’s as far as it goes.
Anyway! For a book that I expected to be a horror book, there was very little actual horror. The vast majority of the narrative is focused on Aphra building up a found family and on quietly meditation on the differences and similarities between people. Also on being female in male-dominated spaces and how several different characters deal with that. The last third is the most action-packed when things start to go wrong, but the narrative never really made me feel the horror very viscerally. (This is at the very least partially not the book’s fault. It relies on visual descriptions for much of that horror and that approach just bores me to tears. I imagine it does a much better job for people who visualise when they read.) Of course a part of the issue may also be simply that Aphra knows so much more about what’s happening in those scenes than what I would’ve expected a protagonist of a horror novel to know.
I did like it, mind. It was intriguing to see Aphra rebuild a family and to learn more about Trumbull/the Yith. But ultimately it’s just… not my kind of story.
So. Let’s talk about what I picked it up for! The ace rep.
I’ll be honest: I spent the vast majority of the book annoyed by it and even after having finished it, I just really want to shout that books that don’t feature romance prominently/for the main character are not automatically books that feature asexual characters. I’m going to let you sit with that a few moments before I go to the next paragraph.
Okay, so the above paragraph is… not wholly true. In the sense that Aphra does, eventually, make it clear, half-way through the novel, that… Well, I’ll just quote you.
I forbore, too, from pointing out that men of my own kind— had I agemates other than my brother— would need no such deeper understanding to find me alluring. Or that I’d begun to fantasize about such men, even as I struggled to call up the urges that would let me return their imagined affections.
This is brought up in relation to a subplot wherein Aphra’s remaining family really, really want her and her brother Caleb to restore the spawning grounds and bear more babies so that their race does not die out. Caleb has no such compunctions. Aphra, before this moment, has mentioned several times that her reasons for not wanting to have children is that she doesn’t want to deal with the grief of losing them.
There are ways to bring up asexuality in fiction and there are ways to do it in a plotline like this that are understanding of the intersection between trauma and asexuality and… Honestly, I don’t think this is it. Without this one single line, I would never have gathered from this novel that Aphra is asexual. And, while I’m at it, I do take exception to the idea that the only somewhat explicitly asexual character in the novel is someone who spends a vast chunk of her time convincing people that yes she is actually human (just a subspecies). I suspect that some will find it affirming because she succeeds in convincing others of this, but personally I just felt it was dehumanising asexuals (you know, with the whole ‘subspecies of human’ thing?) and we’ve got quite enough of that going on as it is. Perhaps that’s me missing part of what the novel is doing with Lovecraft’s mythos. I just know that it backfired for me because asexuals are dehumanised enough as it is.
(There is, you may have guessed, no acknowledgement of romantic orientations existing.)
So, there you go. It’s not a bad book, mind you. The prose and pace may be slower than a lot of people like, but it’s solid and… almost soothing, in a way. It invites you to think along with it, to consider what is happening. The narrative hints at peripherals and expects you to do the work to figure things out on your own. It has an interesting discussion on the uses of magic that I really liked. It includes several marginalised characters, all of whom are sympathetic (albeit sometimes in their own way). I loved getting to know them better alongside Aphra.
And if the setting isn’t entirely to my liking because I know I’m missing details… Well, I went into it knowing I’d be missing them and that’s on me.
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