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Review: The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson August 7, 2016

Posted by sjroby in Book reviews, Lovecraft.
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cover87989-mediumAnother Netgalley review, though I’ve had a Tor.com page about this book open in an iPad browser tab for some time to make sure I didn’t miss it. So an honest review for a free preview of something I would gladly have paid for, and in this case, I’d’ve still been glad after reading it. Anyway:

Kij Johnson does something here that Lovecraft readers have needed for some time. Well, a couple of somethings, really.

First, and most importantly, Lovecraft was a product of his time in ways that are, frankly, difficult to accept now. His stories were at times appallingly racist, and he rarely portrayed female characters at all, never mind sympathetically.

Second, and important to Lovecraft readers, Lovecraft has become known as a weird recluse who wrote horror stories. Which, at times, he was, but not all of his work was horror. Some was science fiction, and some was fantasy. For example, one of his longer works, The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath, which was about a human traveler in the Dreamlands, a real place where dreamers go but few remember. It’s connected to a few of his other stories and, though it features monsters and some of the entities from his other stories known as the Cthulhu mythos, the overall tone is very different. They’re tales of wonder and nostalgia, not horror, and owe a debt to Dunsany”s fantasy tales.

In The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe, Kij Johnson revisits the Dreamlands in a story that’s notable both because it specifically addresses the place of women in Lovecraft’s fiction and because, unlike the majority of the hundreds — or thousands — of Lovecraft-influenced stories, it deals with the Dreamlands, not the Cthulhu Mythos.

Johnson does the former by telling her story from the perspective of a native of the Dreamlands, a woman professor all too conscious of the lack of respect her college and students get from the male majority, Hers is a world where women are a minority, and where gods powerful and less so interfere with human lives. When one of her students goes missing with a man from the waking world, she has to travel the Dreamlands to try to find her before she travels to our world — because the student doesn’t yet realize her true place in her world, and Boe’s adopted home is at risk.

In Lovecraft’s original tale, Randolph Carter travels through the Dreamlands seeking a city he remembers, encountering many strange things and places. Vellitt Boe has a similar journey; her story echoes in his in some ways, while commenting on it and subverting some elements of it.

Brian Lumley set several novels in the Dreamlands, but his were uninvolving sword and sorcery tales that happened to be set there. (The first one was, at least; I didn’t enjoy it, so I didn’t carry on with the rest of the books.) Johnson’s story is much more thoughtful. She’s also much more of a prose stylist,

It should be mentioned that it isn’t at all necessary to be familiar with Lovecraft to enjoy this story. It may simply seem to be an enjoyable weird tale rather than a dialogue with a problematic writer, but don’t let that stop you.