Review: Deep Roots by Ruthanna Emrys

I struggled for a while to write a review of this book, because I couldn’t seem to find the words to convey how much depth and heart(break) it contains, the startling realism, the grace with which the author explores the complexity of human (and not-so-human) people. 

Picking up some months after the events of Winter Tide (a book you really must read first), Aphra, along with her confluence (a group who work magic together) and friends, has traveled to New York City in search of long lost “mist-blooded” relatives, after horrific acts of genocide perpetrated by the American government left them the only known survivors on land. Soon their search leads them to a group of people dealing with a mythical species from another world, capable of sending disembodied minds on journeys through the stars, and things become a lot more complicated. Government agents, aliens, and of course all of Aphra’s group find themselves struggling to find the best path forward for humanity, when there are some very different ideas about what “best” means.

This is a historical science fiction novel (set in the late 1940’s) that, though it might be based on Lovecraftian mythology, is about as far away from a monster book as you can get. The historical aspect feels breathtakingly possible, a thin veneer of fantasy laid over the bones of past injustice, as all the struggles and prejudices and violence really happened, even if in our reality no ocean-dwelling branch of humanity ever existed,

This is also not a “monster” book because not only is the “other” shown with compassion, but we see the world entirely through the eyes of those who have been pushed to the margins. The cast of main characters, when we move away from Aphra and Caleb’s more mythical origins, are black and gay and Jewish, are women who don’t behave the way women are supposed to, are people who balance on a knife’s edge of respectability. In this installment Aphra remains the primary narrator, but in an added bit of richness we see small glimpses into all the main cast of characters’ mindsets and experiences in the form of short diary entry like segues between chapters, deepening the reader’s understanding of the wider emotional picture.

And though there are some genuinely creepy elements, I wouldn’t really classify it as horror either. It stays firmly on the side of SFF, a unique and tender take on the Lovecraftian source material (the author herself notes wryly in the acknowledgements that her stories would cause some grave-turning for the eponymous writer).

At a time in our own world when the American state is once more talking about mass internment of the “wrong sorts” of people, this story hit me even harder. While in Winter Tide the freshness of loss was still a raw wound for Aphra, and she still seemed somewhat in shock, in Deep Roots she’s really coming to realize the enormity of the reality that nothing will ever be the same again. Not if she finds every single “mist-blooded” human, not if she buys back every house in their former hometown, not even as she’s found a chosen family whose love is a beautiful part of her new world. It’s not that she’s not hopeful or commited--far from it--but there’s also a sense of resignation that hurt for its realness, its truth. An atrocity was committed, a horror that left just two orphan children in its wake, now adults who have no choice but to live and work beside those who were complicit in the destruction of their entire world. There’s rage and bitterness, but also the inevitability of living, still, and living as best you can with the circumstances as they are.

Ruthanna Emrys holds her characters close, telling their stories, fictional though they may be, with dignity and care, a deep respect for the sacredness of a people and religion that never existed. Her writing is lyrical and skilled, and as a reader I’m left rather melancholy, the story lingering in my thoughts for days after I turned the last page. This series is something special, and something too relevant to the age we’re now living in. I think it would have crossover appeal not only to SFF fans, but also readers of historical fiction and literature. Do yourself a favour and read it as soon as it's released on July 10th!

I received an advance reader's copy courtesy of NetGalley.