Some book titles seem designed to befuddle the reader. Others are only tangentially related to the contents of the novel. But sometimes, the title is so essential, so perfectly crafted, it tells you everything you need to know, laying out like a roadmap everything the book is trying to do. So it is with The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson, which was just nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novella, an honor it richly deserves.
Even casual readers of H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos may recognize the phrase “Dream-Quest” from the title of his story “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath.” It’s the Randolph Carter, an oneironaut (literally, an explorer of dreams) who plumbs the sleeping realm in search of a fantastic sunset city briefly glimpsed in a dream. His story leads him across a large portion of the Dreamworld, where he encounters wonders, and horrors. Kij Johnson’s story is takes us on another trip across the Dreamlands. But who is Vellitt Boe?
In much of Lovecraft, female characters exist, at best, at the periphery, if they are not entirely absent. His interest in writing female characters is minimal, and his work suffers from the lack of believable representation of half of humanity. Thusly, putting a female character’s name right in the title is the first indication that this book is responding and reacting this Lovecraftian tendancy, perhaps to the point of commentary. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is about a female character exploring the Dreamlands, providing a chance for readers to get a glimpse into Lovecraft’s world from a perspective and vantage point that Lovecraft himself has neglected.
So how does Vellitt’s Dream-Quest play out?
The titular character is a teacher at the Women’s College in Ulthar, the dream city of cats. She’s a full-time denizen of the Dreamlands, as are her students. One of those students, however, the gifted grandchild of an elder god, runs off with a dreamer from the waking world. Jurat’s father and grandfather will most certainly be angry, perhaps to the point of annihilating the college, if not the city. At the very least, as part of the board of the college, her father will shut it down to female students. Vellitt’s Dream-Quest is to retrieve her wayward student before disaster strikes the college she calls home.
Along the way, Vellitt’s visits the same sorts of locations as Lovecraft’s protagonist, and meets with the same sorts of denizens. But Johnson introduces her own new wrinkles. One of the best, and crucial to the plot, is the revelation that Vellitt, once called Veline, had a relationship with Randolph Carter; he cameos in Johnson’s story. Given the complex and skilled nature of the protagonist, it’s entirely believable, in Johnson’s formulation, that Carter would have once taken up with Boe. He does not dominate the story, but it is richer for Boe meeting him. Retroactively, her existence enriches Carter’s character in the original story.
The focus, though, is Boe’s journey. Beyond Carter, the story is replete with allusions and references to Lovecraft’s Dreamlands fiction. Understanding these hat-tips is not necessary to your enjoyment of the novella, but their presence enriches the experience immeasurably. It is clear Johnson knows her Lovecraft, and does not waste the opportunity to build her own sand castle on the shores of his Dreamlands.
The novella does threaten to get a bit too clever when Boe’s journey takes her into the waking world, but after a rocky switchover, the story runs toward a conclusion that, in the context of the growth and change in Vellitt throughout the story, is the only one it could have. I was most pleased to have read it.