Deep Roots by Ruthanna Emrys
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
I enjoyed Winter Tide, and I looked forward to Deep Roots, looked forward to again following a quiet, contemplative protagonist as she searched for survivors of her people to rebuild her community. As much as I love thrillers and adventure stories, I also like taking a break with a character who is cerebral and relationship-focused, a thinker like me.
Winter Tide’s search for information in the midst of paranoia and mistrust was like reading a John Le Carre spy novel, slow but satisfying. Unfortunately, Deep Roots didn’t satisfy me in the same way. Emrys tried to use the same techniques again, but that, ultimately, was the problem. That ground had been trod. Deep Roots needed to be a different kind of story. It had all the elements of a more old-school pulp sci-fi action story (aliens, G-men, everyday folks caught in the middle!), but it didn’t come together that way. I wanted this book to be a blend of an action-thriller and a cerebral exploration, but it was too much thinking and not enough action.
I usually advocate for larger casts of characters in stories, but a large cast requires splitting it into smaller groups, and too many of the characters in Deep Roots are together too much of the time. I could see the work Emrys was putting in when seven or eight people were crammed in a hotel room or a van trying to have a conversation. All they did was bicker, and it was work to read it and keep everyone distinct. The first-person narrator is also too much of a constraint on the novel’s structure. We only get other points-of-view through brief, italicized journal entries. Emrys allows the conceit of the diary entry to fall away as she writes these scenes, and I wanted her to take it further and allow the first-person narrative to be disrupted by third-person chapters that follow these other characters. I was excited to follow Caleb and Deedee into their own investigation, and instead that fizzled out. Switching between first- and third-person narration is a workable model, and in this story would have allowed us to follow other characters and know things Aphra doesn’t. It would have made the story feel less claustrophobic.
These characters also talk everything to death. They keep talking about paranoia, but it feels like anxiety as the talk their way in circles about the Outer One’s motivations and philosophies and the rights of everyone to do what they want, but what about The Consequences. I didn’t care about the consequences anyone would suffer in this book. I didn’t care if they convinced Freddy to move to Innsmouth to help them reclaim and rescue the land. I didn’t care if Nekko went traveling with the Outer Ones. I knew Aphra wouldn’t suffer any permanent damage from the Outer One’s technology because she’s the protagonist and she’s suffered enough, and I knew Emrys wasn’t going to permanently disable her any more. The only exciting rescue of consequence in the story was when they went to save Spector. I just wanted them all to take more action instead of analyzing everything into a state of stupor. A car chase, fist-fight, or on-page kidnapping would have added some zing. Aphra kept thinking, “we’re running out of time,” but I felt no sense of urgency from eighty percent of the text.
Aphra spends almost the entire book in a state of exhaustion, wringing her mental or physical hands about what’s happening around her and the mistakes she’s making. I was exhausted reading this book. I almost abandoned it several times, and I skimmed the last hundred pages, pushing myself to finish because I’m a completionist and got really stubborn about it. But I didn’t enjoy it, and that makes me sad because I genuinely wanted to.
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