Book Reviews

Book Review: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson


The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe

By: Kij Johnson

Published: August 16, 2016

The Rundown: “Professor Vellitt Boe teaches at the prestigious Ulthar Women’s College.  When one of her most gifted students elopes with a dreamer from the waking world, Vellitt must retrieve her.  But the journey sends her on a quest across the Dreamlands and into her own mysterious past, where some secrets were never meant to surface.”

Don’t Get Strung Out by the Way I Look: In the center of the cover is a woman dressed like a hiker.  On her shoulder is perched a small cat.  This makes it seem like the story will be a whimsical fantasy, but in reality, it is much darker.  The woman and the cat are looking at tentacle things in the sky; in the novella, it is established that the sky of the Dreamlands is folded like cloth.  The dream-like aura of the cover perfectly encapsulates the tone and the setting of the story.

What a Wonderful World: The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a spinoff of H.P. Lovecraft’s novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.  In Unknown Kadath, Randolph Carter journeys to the Dreamlands from the Waking World in search of a beautiful city.  In Vellitt Boe, Vellitt is from the Dreamlands, which are established to be a construct of the psyche of dreaming men (and only men).  The land, indeed, resembles a dream: distances between locales vary, and there are no fixed mathematical or physical principles.  The world is full of monsters, and mad gods wake and destroy populous cities for no discernible reason.  Having grown up in this world, Vellitt views it as normal; only the reader is horrified by her circumstances.

The Good Guy: In her youth, Vellitt Boe was a wanderer who travelled all over the Dreamlands, despite the dangers it presented to her.  Eventually, she realized that this lifestyle could not be maintained and went to college, eventually becoming a professor of mathematics.  At the start of the novella, Vellitt is fully immersed in university life, and is determined to protect the school when her student Clarie Jurat endangers it by eloping.  As Vellitt journeys through the paths of her youth, however, her life as a professor feels increasingly like a dream.

The Bad Guy: There closest thing the story has to a central antagonist are the gods of the Dreamlands.  The gods must be kept in slumber by the monks, but their work is only partially effective; the gods often awaken to wreak havoc.  It is revealed that Clarie is the granddaughter of one of these mad gods.  When he awakens to find her gone, he will destroy Ulthar.  It is therefore imperative that she be returned to the Dreamlands.

The Love Interest: Vellitt had several lovers in the past, but is happy with her current state as a single woman.  One of her lovers was Randolph Carter from Unknown Kadath, who has become a king in the Dreamlands.  She meets him during the course of her journey, and their reunion is amicable; though Carter shows some sexual interest, Vellitt has outgrown him.

A+: Johnson does a great job at showing how the exotic can be mundane, and the mundane exotic.  Vellitt regards a world with no set rules as normal, and is unintimidated by the lack of mathematical laws and physical constants.  She dislikes, but accepts, the mad gods that terrorize the Dreamlands.  Yet she is intrigued by the Waking World, with its limitless universe and absence of gods.  As a youth, she actually demands proof from Carter of the nature of his world’s sky.  She is disappointed to find that some of the most hated aspects of her own world, such as the rampant sexism, are endemic to the Waking World as well.  For example, Carter states that there are no female dreamers because “Women don’t dream large dreams… It is all babies and housework.  Tiny dreams.”

F-: At the beginning of the novel, I had a lot of difficulty empathizing with Vellitt’s quest to find Clarie Jurat.  Vellit wants to find Clarie because her father is an important man in Ulthar and, if he finds out that his daughter has run off, he may shut the Ulthar Women’s College down, thereby preventing many women from receiving an education.  I understand Vellitt’s motivations from a “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” perspective, but at the end of the day, she is trying to prevent a young woman from making her own decisions about her life.  Clarie’s ultimate fate at the end of the novella was supposed to be empowering, but it still left a bad taste in my mouth.

Does it Represent…

Women: One of the major complaints that modern audiences has about Lovecraft’s work is that women are invisible.  Forget otherworldly monsters: he has created a dark mirror in which women do not exist.  Vellitt Boe takes place in Lovecraft’s universe, but is told from a woman’s perspective.  In the Dreamlands, the men greatly outnumber the women, and the only visitors from the Waking World are men.  A sense of alienation permeates the book.  The men of the Dreamlands oppose the education of women; Vellitt rarely meets women during her travels; Vellitt is under constant threat of assault not only from monsters, but also from her fellow male travelers.  When Vellitt finally makes it to the Waking World, her troubles persist.  Although there are more women than men, and there are no mad gods, Vellitt recognizes that as a woman, she is still not welcome.

People of Color: Just as Lovecraft’s fiction is overwhelmingly male, it is also overwhelmingly white.  Johnson doesn’t confront this in her novella, and it is implied that all the residents of the Dreamlands are white.  Other reviewers said that Johnson tackled race relations in terms of the interactions between the different species of the Dreamlands, but I didn’t see it.  Besides, gugs and ghasts are no substitute for black people.

LGBT People: In her youth, Vellitt had a gay man as a travelling companion.  He was enslaved by the mad gods and now works in their temple as the arch-priest Nasht.  Homosexuality isn’t discussed, but it is implied that it is just as dangerous to be queer in the Dreamlands as it is to be a woman.

The Disabled: No.

But What About Boomer?!: The kitty lives!

Memorable Quote: “Some people change the world.  And some people change the people who change the world, and that’s you.”

Recommended For: People who like travelling stories.  Fans of Lovecraft who wish that his work was a tad less sexist.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


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