LitStack Review: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe
Release Date: August 16, 2016
It’s not often that you have a story where the hero is a middle aged woman. Or one where her fantastical tale is not carried aloft via fighting technique or extraordinary cunning, but due to her past experience of traveling her world. One where the aim is to quell a flight of fancy, not escape into it.
Vellitt Boe is a professor of Mathematics at the Ulthar Women’s College in the dreamlands. On one perfectly ordinary night she is awakened to the alarming news that one of the Ulthar students has eloped with a young man from the waking lands, a cause for great alarm that transcends the girl’s reputation and the tarnished prestige of the college. Quickly Vellitt determines to follow the wayward couple and bring the girl home – but this is a task far easier said than done. For the dreamlands, although full of beauty, are also full of danger from strange creatures, inconsistent environments and the capriciousness of peevish gods.
Thankfully, Vellitt has experience with traveling through the dreamlands; many years before settling into her professorial life, she was one of the few women who gave into wanderlust, crossing her world while having adventures both enjoyable and perilous. Now she must draw from her past knowledge to not only transverse the dream world, but to pass through the gates leading to the waking world, with only a small black cat for company.
The writing in The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is simple and lovely, not dependent on hyperbole and yet full of appreciation of both the here and now and the pull of the past – just as if it had been written by a middle-aged woman pulled into an unanticipated task. Apparently, the book was written in response to author Kij Johnson’s need to make sense of H. P. Lovecraft’s novella, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, a book she read at age ten that both “thrilled and terrified” her. I know nothing of that book, and very little of Lovecraft save by reputation, and still was totally swept up in this story.
In retrospect, you can see an author trying to make sense of the issues that have dogged H. P. Lovecraft into this modern era – his racism and disregard for women. But there are no diatribes here, no lessons being taught, just beautiful writing from a mature, female perspective to highlight personal experience.
She was going to be seen by an old lover, now a king. It was impossible to assume she would not be considered against the Veline Boe that had been. She hadn’t loved Randolph Carter. He had been a man like many, so wrapped and rapt in his own story that there was no room for the world around him except as it served his own tale: the black men of Parg and Kled and Sona Nyl, the gold men of Thorabon and Ophir and Rinar; and all the women invisible everywhere, except when they brought him drinks or sold him food – all walk-on parts in the play that was Randolph Carter, or even wallpaper.
But he had loved her, or thought he did, and that had brought her, sputtering and gasping, above the surface of his self-regard. The dreamer’s sheen and the power of his passion had for a time attracted her, but in the end she had not wanted a life spent treading water in his story. She still did not – and yet she regarded herself in the glass a little ruefully. To have that choice removed by time and age was painful.
It’s a beautiful sentiment, beautifully expressed, folded into a larger story full of epic sea voyages and terrifying underground journeys, old friends, parlaying past experiences to overcome current obstacles, all calmly undertaken by a woman who has a job to do. An unenviable job, but a job nonetheless. And when the voyages and journeys and adventures come to an end? The story becomes even more amazing, for we have gone so long with the fantastical being the norm, that when things become “normal”, they feel strange and fantastic.
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a slim volume, but it’s a perfect example of a story where an economy of words make worlds come to life, allowing the imagination to effortlessly color in a fanciful world. I truly enjoyed this book, and have no doubt that you will, as well.
~ Sharon Browning