The Nebula-Quest of Lisa P: A Review of The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (2016)
Written by: Kij Johnson
Pages: 169 (Paperback)
Publisher: Tor.com

Why I Chose It: There’s a couple reasons. First, I’ve always wanted to read something by Kij Johnson. Second, the title along with the great illustrated cover intrigued me.

The premise:

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.

“Kij Johnson’s haunting novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is both a commentary on a classic H.P. Lovecraft tale and a profound reflection on a woman’s life. Vellitt’s quest to find a former student who may be the only person who can save her community takes her through a world governed by a seemingly arbitrary dream logic in which she occasionally glimpses an underlying but mysterious order, a world ruled by capricious gods and populated by the creatures of dreams and nightmares. Those familiar with Lovecraft’s work will travel through a fantasy landscape infused with Lovecraftian images viewed from another perspective, but even readers unfamiliar with his work will be enthralled by Vellitt’s quest. A remarkable accomplishment that repays rereading.” —Pamela Sargent, winner of the Nebula Award

Warning: Spoilers!


Discussion: When I picked this novella out of the Nebula nominees to read, I had no idea it was a commentary/reference to H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. I have never read this story, but from what I can gather, Johnson’s novella is sort of an opposing view of his story: the tale centers around Vellitt Boe, a woman of the dream world, who goes on a quest to the waking world to retrieve a wayward student. In Lovecraft’s story, a man from the waking world travels to the dream world.

This is my first experience with the dream world, and it is filled with unusual things and weird creatures. Disappointingly, I was never that impressed with the creatures in this book. They seemed like pretty typical fantastical creatures (ghouls, ghasts, etc), and I never really felt any fear or dread regarding them. Conversely, the most impressive part of the dream world was the physics (or lackthereof) and mythology. While Boe is traveling in the dream world to a gate to cross over to the waking world, she travels by sea, and the duration of the trip is never the same. It can take 2 days or 3 weeks. In regards to the gods, they were mentioned in brief moments, and I would have liked to have learned more about their hierarchy and personalities.

When Boe finally makes it to the waking world, which is our world, with the help of a ghast (size of a small horse with a humanoid face), she arrives with knowledge, clothing, and other things needed to survive. The ghast is transformed into an old car. I thought this was a fun idea that the dream world monsters are somehow equivalent to our world’s machines. It would be great to explore that idea more.

As for the student, she turns out to have a secret history and her future may lead somewhere special. I would like to read the book about that character, too.

In Conclusion: This novella is a nice snippet of fantasy with references to Lovecraft’s work, while being a great story about a mature woman going on a quest to retrieve one of her students who has run away to the waking world with a man. The worldbuilding touches on interesting little things that could really be taken to the next level in a longer story. Overall I enjoyed it, and I think fans of Lovecraft (but not of his problematic views) would enjoy it even more.

5 Comments

  • Lane Robins April 28, 2017 at 11:58 am

    I adore this novella like crazy. 🙂 I’m rooting for it to win, though I think this year has a lot of really strong contenders! As for Lovecraft, I’m that mixed reader. I’ve read a lot of his stories to mixed feelings. I admire his impact on the field of horror and fantasy, even while I cringe at his racism and frankly his often overwrought, yet oddly vague, writing. So this novella was right up my alley.

    Reply
  • Shara White April 28, 2017 at 12:55 pm

    I never read the original; didn’t know it was based off anything until after, so it made my mixed feelings on this novella make sense. I found my favorite parts of this story were the beginning: the older lady protag teaching at a women’s college (women’s college REPRESENT!) and ALL THE CATS. In fact, I’m pretty sure this story is a tie-in to this novella: The Cat Who Walked a Thousand Miles, which I really enjoyed.

    Still, there was a lot to enjoy in this piece, and I wish there had been more pages to devote to developing things. I feel like there’s room for a sequel, or a novel.

    Reply
    • Lane Robins April 28, 2017 at 3:41 pm

      I think this is very much a middle-aged woman novella. The things Vellitt discovers and influences just really spoke to me. (Dancing around spoilers.) I cried ugly happy tears at the end, like whoa.

      Reply
      • Shara White April 28, 2017 at 7:45 pm

        Not related to this book, Lane, but have you read The Dazzle of Day by Molly Gloss? I read this in my twenties and it was definitely the WRONG age for me to read it, so I’ll probably pick it up again when I’m older, but it’s another story that features a middle-aged woman, this one being SF.

        Reply
        • Lane Robins April 29, 2017 at 5:44 pm

          I haven’t even heard of it! I’ll have to check it out.

          Reply

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