One of NPR's Best Books of 2016 and a Hugo, Nebula, John W. Campbell, and Locus Award finalist for Best Novella
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
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The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe
By Kij Johnson, Jonathan Strahan
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Kij Johnson
All rights reserved.
VELLITT BOE WAS DREAMING of a highway and ten million birds in an empty sky of featureless blue. The highway, broad and black as a tar pit. The birds, a cloud of them, like a mist writhing, like gnats pillaring over the dark marshes of Lomar or flickering shoals of silver fish in the crystal seas beyond Oriab. The sky: empty, untextured, flat. A great black beast crouching beside her growled steadily, but the birds were louder. One called with a high sweet voice, and it was saying, "Professor Boe? Professor Boe!"
Reality returned in rapid stages: the never-absent pain in her back; the softness against her face of sheets worn satin-smooth in the College's laundry; the cold air; the moonlight graphed by the casemented windows onto the broad bare floor of her dark bedroom; the percussion of urgent fists; and the voice, soprano but strong — one of the students and afraid, so afraid: "Professor! Please, O gods, please, you must wake up!"
And she was awake. Vellitt pushed herself upright in her narrow bed. "Wait!" she called, caught her robe from where it lay across her feet, and stepped into her slippers. She went to open the door.
It was Derysk Oure, the third-year Chymical Studies scholar, one hand still raised from the knocking. In the sallow light of the hallway's single gas-jet, her face was the color of drying mud, and more anxious than Vellitt had ever seen it. She was dressed in a pyjama suit — quite daring, really — but with a country shawl around her shoulders, and she was weeping. "Professor Boe! Please, please come right away! I don't — It's Jurat."
Food-poisoning in the Hall, scandal, suicide: there were a thousand ways a women's college might find itself destroyed. Clarie Jurat was a third-year, reading Mathematics with Vellitt, and her best student in twenty years of teaching at Ulthar Women's College: a brilliant girl, strong-willed, charismatic and beautiful, with long laughing eyes and thick black hair she wore always in a heavy fishtail braid half down her back.
"Lead me." Vellitt followed Oure down the stairwell, the girl still sobbing. "What about Jurat? Calm down, Oure, or I'll have you on my hands, as well. This is not the way an Ulthar woman behaves."
Oure paused, pressed her palms against her eyes. "I know, I'm sorry, Professor. You're right. I was on my way to bed, and Hust burst out of their suite just as I was going past, and she said, She's gone, she's run away with him, so Martveit ran to get the Dean, and I came to get you. I don't know anything else."
"Jurat takes Exams in three months. When did she have time to meet anyone?"
Oure turned back down the stairs. "I don't know, I'm sure." It was a lie, of course, but the girl said no more.
They exited Fellow's Stair and crossed the quad. Only one set of lights shone out, from Jurat's windows. Good; the fewer awake in the first uncontrolled moments of this situation — whatever it was — the better. The shadows were all moving, visibly shifting as the moon drifted southward on some god's whim. The cold night air was filled with the sharp scents of chrysanthemums and the first fallen leaves, and was so quiet that Vellitt could hear cats wailing just beyond the College wall. A clowder had congregated within the quad, as well; they ceased whatever was their business and watched as Vellitt and Oure passed, and one, a small black cat, separated itself from the rest and followed them into Jurat's stairwell. The cold light streaming in through the windows vanished suddenly as the moon passed behind the dining-hall's tower, and they were left in the flickering amber of the weak gas-jets on each landing.
A handful of young women had clustered near Jurat's door, wrapped in bath-robes or shawls or the blankets from the foots of their beds; the College did not waste its funds heating the stairwells. Their voices burst around Vellitt, high and nervous. She snapped out, "Women!" with the authority of long experience, and they fell silent, their anxious, sleep-worn faces tracking her ascent like poppies: the old women they would become for a moment showing through their youth.
There was a circle of space around Jurat's door, the women's curiosity in equipoise with their unwillingness to be associated with whatever crimes she might have committed. Only Therine Angoli had crossed, weeping soundlessly as she held Raba Hust, the Ancient Sarnathian scholar, a heavyset girl with warm brown skin turned the color of ashes and dust in the dim hall light. Hust was Jurat's room-mate. Angoli, Hust, and Jurat had been close, the Three Inseparables.
Vellitt announced to the assembled women, "It remains past curfew. Return to your rooms before the Dean arrives and finds herself obliged to take notice. I need not remind you that discretion is and must always be a byword of Ulthar women. Do not speak of this, even among yourselves, until we know more — especially, to no one outside the College. Miss Hust, I must detain you for another moment."
Without waiting to see her order followed, she disengaged Hust from Angoli's clinging arms and thrust her into the room, to close the door.
* * *
Jurat and Hust's sitting room was disordered, the wardrobe doors ajar and clothing distributed over every flat surface. Open-faced books teetered in irregular stacks on the paper-strewn floor, and a tray of dirty crockery from the buttery had been shoved halfway beneath one of the two unmade beds. Even the framed prints on the walls, scenic photographic views of the Naraxa Valley from a generation ago, were crooked. The room looked as though it had been ransacked during a particularly violent abduction, but all the women students' rooms did these days — as though there were a fad among them of being as sloppy personally as they were disciplined in their studies.
Hust fell into a padded armchair and, with the heedless flexibility of the young, pulled her feet up, wrapping her arms around her knees and hugging them close to her chest. She was still sobbing.
As Vellitt moved piles of old Articulations from the two wooden study chairs, there was a brisk knock at the door, followed immediately by the entrance of a small woman with short grizzled hair and the clever eye of a hunting bird: Gnesa Petso, the Dean of Ulthar Women's College. She was dressed in a soft woolen robe, once red but a decade old and dimmed by age and laundering. Without preliminaries, she seated herself on one of the cleared chairs and said briskly, "Hust, every moment is important. What has happened?"
Hust gave her a piece of notepaper, folded twice. The Dean read as Hust said, "When I came back from the library tonight, Jurat wasn't here. That was nine o'clock, I think. She hadn't said anything to me about being out late, but I assumed she had a late pass to be at a lecture or a reading-party, or —" But she was flushed, lying.
The Dean, casting a bright black eye up from the note, said, "Or that she slipped out to be with a man. Miss Hust, do not disgrace yourself trying to sustain someone else's lie."
Hust ducked her head. "I found her letter under my blankets. I've been working on Articulations, so she knew I wouldn't see it until late."
The Dean passed the note to Vellitt. Clarie Jurat's handwriting was as beautiful as everything else about her.
Raba, dear —
Do not be distressed! You know what this says already, don't you — You always see everything so clearly. I go to be with Stephan — I know it is shocking, but there is such an enormous world, and I cannot see it here. He says there are millions of stars, Raba. Millions. Please show this to Therine. I am sorry for the people who will be hurt, but how could I ever explain this to dear old Prof Boe? To the Dean? To my father? It is impossible — they could not understand — and Stephan tells me it must be tonight or never — and so I go! The greatest adventure, yes? Be happy for me.
Your loving, Clarie.
The story was soon told. Clarie Jurat had met Stephan Heller when the Three Inseparables had attended a Union debate four weeks ago. He had struck up a conversation outside the Hall, buying them all coffee at the Crévie. He had been captivated by Jurat: no surprise, Hust said — a little wistfully, for of the Inseparables, Raba was the plainest. What was a surprise was that Jurat found him equally attractive. He was good-looking, tawny-skinned and dark-eyed with excellent teeth, and very tall (Hust sighed), but it wasn't any of that. There was just something about him.
The next afternoon, it had been tea for Hust and Jurat — Therine Angoli had been unable to join them because of her Maritime Economic History tutorial — and then it had been Jurat and Stephan, Stephan and Jurat, weeks and weeks of high teas and low teas and tiffins, of walks through Ulthar's quaint narrow streets and punting upon the Aëdl; of after-hour bottles of wine shared in the sorts of public places where the kellarkips did not ask about the University status of young women. That Jurat's studies had not suffered during this month was more a sign of her innate brilliance than of any devotion to her work.
And now this.
The Dean said, "We need to bring her back before this becomes a known thing. Is he a student?" No, Hust rather thought he seemed older than that. "Well, where does he stay? You must know that, yes? She must have said something."
Hust hesitated, biting a cuticle.
Vellitt snapped, "I know you have no wish to break silence, Hust, but believe me: this is the right thing to do. We must find her. Do you know who her father is?"
"She never talks about her family. What does it matter, anyway?" Hust dropped her hand, and looked up a little defiantly.
The Dean explained, "Jurat's father is one of the College's Trustees, and he reports to the University's board."
Hust said, "She's a grown woman, and she's in love. She is permitted to plan her own life, surely? What's wrong with that?"
Vellitt snapped, "What's wrong is that her father may have the College shut down —"
Hust looked aghast. "Oh, surely not!"
"— and perhaps get women banned from the University altogether," said Vellitt. "This is why we must find her quickly and bring her back. Where does he live?"
Hust bit her lip. "I know Heller has been staying at The Speared Hart. He's not from Ulthar. I thought I said: he was special. He's from the waking world. That's where he's taking her."
* * *
"That fool," snarled Vellitt Boe to Gnesa Petso.
It was ten minutes later. The Dean had ordered Hust to return to bed, but Vellitt saw a flicker of a bright shawl above them as they descended the stairwell: Angoli, lurking on the landing. Never mind. Hust would need comfort, and Angoli as well: the Inseparables separated forever now, and for such a reason.
Gnesa and Vellitt had come to Vellitt's rooms as being closer; and she had turned up the gas-jets and poured whiskey for them both. The Fellows of Ulthar Women's College were expected to live disciplined lives free of the indulgences male Fellows of the other colleges might enjoy, but this was honored rather in the breach, even at the best of times. Just now, Vellitt thought they needed the whiskey's bite, but she barely tasted it before she put it down and began pacing.
Gnesa looked up at Vellitt from her seat on one of the worn brocaded settees. "Sit down, Vellitt. We must think, and this is not productive."
Vellitt dropped into the facing seat. "I know, but — ah, this is infuriating. I thought we trained our women to think clearly, and this, this elopement — We're always walking a fine line at the best of times. How could she not see that? She could get women banned from the University — and for what? For a whim?" It was impossible to stay still; she stood to pace again.
"For love," Gnesa said.
Vellitt shook her head. "She is too intelligent not to see the damage — not for her, but for the others, the ones who won't marry, who don't have that option, perhaps. It was selfish. Jurat should be better than that."
"When are young people in love anything but selfish?" said Gnesa. "Were you any better?"
"I harmed no one but myself when I was young," said Vellitt. "And my parents were dead. But —" She bit off the words; took a breath, then a second. "I do see what you are saying, Gnesa. I apologize."
"Accepted," Gnesa said. "So we must find out, primus, whether any part of this is true —"
"Jurat may be a fool, but she is no liar."
Gnesa continued, "— secundus, whether they have left Ulthar yet, and if so, tertius — the waking world? How does one get there?" Vellitt opened her mouth, but Gnesa raised a finger: "Primus first. Go wake up Daekkson and send him to The Speared Hart to see whether they are by some mad chance still there. If so, he can drag her back by the ear and this may be over before dawn. We'll figure out the rest while he's gone."
"I'll rouse him," Vellitt said. "I may as well use some of this energy for something."
It took rather less than five minutes to cross the quad, awaken the porter in his rooms behind the main gate, and explain the situation. When Vellitt returned, she found Gnesa had moved to her desk and pushed aside the Articulations clustered there.
"Done," Vellitt said when Gnesa looked up from what she was writing. "He'll report to us here as soon as he returns."
Gnesa nodded. "Excellent. If he does bring her back, there will be little harm done. Provided she's not pregnant, anyway. If she's gone —" She picked up a page before her, half-covered in her precise, crabbed handwriting. "Here's my thinking."
It was a list. Gnesa read it to her, voice raised slightly to be heard from the bedroom as Vellitt dressed. The other Professors and Fellows of Ulthar Women's College would need to be awakened, collected, and told — which meant the scouts would need to be awakened, which meant the housekeeper, who would handle all that. There would have to be an emergency assembly for the students, enjoining silence for all their sakes — they could not count on the news remaining secret within the College; best to take the ram by the horns — and it would have to be before anyone left for lectures and classes. At Matins, then, though there were plenty of students who skipped the rituals. The scouts would need to be told to rouse late-risers to make sure they were there. The kitchen staff would need to be warned that the entire College would be at breakfast in a body right afterward, instead of arriving in their more usual dribs and drabs, or even skipping it altogether.
Gnesa would need to write to Davell Jurat and tell him the College had lost his daughter — "and ask him, please, kind sir, do not shut us down," she said sourly. There would be a different letter to the other Trustees, stating that Jurat had been taken away by a man of the waking world: hinting at unknown sorceries (though certainly not lying directly), so that perhaps the College might not seem so culpable. If everything were handled carefully, and so long as the whole thing could be hushed up, and provided there was no possibility of recurrence, the Trustees might be convinced not to close the College.
Vellitt walked out to the sitting room buttoning her walking skirt, as Gnesa ended, "If they were at the inn but are gone now, find her somehow." Gnesa looked up. "This is all assuming that he is what he says he is, a dreamer, and not just some smooth-talking Thran man, here to seduce University girls."
Vellitt sat to lace her shoes. "I don't think so. Jurat has read Maths with me for three years now. The students tell their tutors things — you know how they do. I know she's ignored men who were much more handsome than this Stephan Heller sounds. Hust said he was special, and I think he is. There's a ... sheen to waking-world men. A dark charisma. If you spend more than an hour or two with one, it's obvious. That's what Jurat was responding to."
The Dean put down the pen and leaned back, eyeing the painting of Irem above the desk. "Too bad. It would be better for us if he were a charlatan: then we could track him, eventually anyway. Otherwise — What if he has taken her back to his world already, Vellitt? I know dreamers can leave our lands from anywhere. They vanish when they awaken in their own world. I saw it once, a few years back — a man walking along Dubv Lane, and then he was gone."
Vellitt said, "Stephan Heller could do that, but Clarie can't. This is her world; she's awake already. I think they will have to pass through a Gate. There's one on Hatheg-Kla. Dreamers call it the Gate of Deeper Slumber but it just looks ordinary, just wrought iron and moss. There are supposed to be stairs behind it that lead to a temple serving the Flame, and another Gate, and then the waking world."
Excerpted from The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson, Jonathan Strahan. Copyright © 2016 Kij Johnson. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
‘The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe’ was a great novella, of a professor-turned-adventurer (think a more sensible Indiana Jones) and her journey to return a runaway student before disaster strikes her home. This borrows the setting from Lovecraft (although I'd forgotten everything of his Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and didn't feel I'd missed anything) and is a strongly feminist work -- in contrast and commentary to the original -- that really had me excited for each new turn of the story. I can't recommend it enough.