I was disappointed in Winter Tides, though it’s probably not fair to blame James P. Blaylock for my disappointment. It’s not his fault the cover copy doesn’t accurately describe the novel’s actual subject matter. It’s also not his fault I’m a big enough ballad geek that when I see the words “Anne,” “Elinor,” “sisters,” and “drowning” in the same sentence, I immediately think of “The Cruel Sister,” a heartbreaking ballad of love and sisterly betrayal. Between the cover copy and a ballad reference that may or may not have been intentional, I led myself to expect a ghost story and a love story. Here’s the cover copy, for what it’s worth:
Fifteen years ago, on a deserted California beach, Dave Quinn swam out into the winter ocean to save two drowning girls — identical twin sisters. He was only able to save one. Now, years later, he meets Anne, a struggling artist from Canada. He has no idea that she is the child he saved so long ago. And he has no idea that Elinor, the long-dead sister he couldn’t save, has come with her…
What I got instead was a novel about a serial killer and arsonist named Edmund, who isn’t even mentioned on the cover.
Dave and the sisters were there, all right, but I never really felt connected to them, never really felt like I was in their heads. Even when the story was being told from Dave or Anne’s point of view, the narrative focused more on their physical actions than on what was happening with them psychologically. Elinor, the ghost sister, gets even shorter shrift, and mainly seems to be a plot device. The romance between Dave and Anne almost seemed skimmed-over, and both of their feelings for Elinor are summed up in a few sentences here and there. The only intricate, fully developed characterization in the book is that of Edmund, a psychopath who sees torturing people as a fine art form. Blaylock does a good job of depicting him, but I wasn’t expecting a psychopath story. It’s not really my thing.
If you like novels about psychopaths and serial killers, you may well love Winter Tides. It’s a well-written example of that genre. Blaylock’s subtlety and restraint leave the worst bits to the imagination, creating a palpable terror without buckets of splatter. It’s just not the genre I was expecting.