I write this as if surfacing from deep water, or looking up to find a bright world dimmed around me. I have just put down The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe and it is dark outside, a rush of wind constant as surf, and I find myself wondering if the stars will be uncountable millions or if there will be only ninety-seven of them studding a thickly textured sky.
In the world of Vellitt Boe everything has meaning, from the numbered stars to visions in flame. Everything is subject to the whims of petty gods, loving, warring, razing whole nations for a lark. In this shifting, inconstant, changeable place, Boe is Professor of Mathematics at Ulthar Women's College, a prestigious but precariously positioned school, the success of which depends on its students and faculty being discreet, capable, and knowing their place. Clarie Jurat is Vellitt's best pupil, and also, as it happens, the grand-daughter of a sleeping god; when she runs away with a dreamer from the waking world, she risks bringing his wrath down on Ulthar and everything bordering it. Vellitt Boe — 55 years old and certain her adventure-laden travelling days are behind her — must find Clarie and bring her back before disaster strikes her chosen home.
This book held me spellbound from start to finish. It put me in mind of Terry Gilliam's more colourful films in its wonder-quest aesthetic, reminded me in other ways of Keith Miller's The Book of Flying. I treasure how it made me feel both peaceful and thrilled, enchanted and awe-struck; it made me feel like I was inside a very particular kind of dream, the deep endless kind that grants a whole life's worth of adventure within its bounds, from which you can always only wake in the middle, intuiting the rest.
In among the fantastical wonders and horrors that populate the book, what I loved most was Vellitt's perspective. It's rare to find questing adventure fantasy with an older woman as hero — rare to find books that allow women a glimpse of life after romances and happy endings. That Vellitt finds herself growing old, and reflects on it; that she looks in a mirror — that starchy staple trope! — and thinks about how she has aged without it being tragic, or a wicked spell to be reversed by story's end; that she wakes every morning with pain in her back and joints but goes on an adventure anyway; all these were nourishing gifts.
This is the second book of Johnson's I've read about a woman travelling alone on a long road; the first, Fudoki, was the story of a young cat-woman's coming of age, so I deeply appreciate that this is an older woman's journey, retracing in many places her younger self's steps. I loved that Vellitt solves every challenge by drawing on the richness and variety of her experience: Every helper, every feat, is the direct result of the life she's lived.
(With the possible exception of a small black cat. But cats are, of course, inscrutable.)
I had never heard of H. P. Lovecraft's The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath before reading Kij Johnson's afterword explaining how she'd loved the story as a girl, that her own is a response to it, and what revisiting it meant in terms of addressing its racism and dearth of women; Vellitt wonders, often, why the only dreamers to visit her world are men, and the tension of that question is a tugging undercurrent of mystery in the narrative. That said, I never felt any dissonance or lack due to being unfamiliar with the source material. The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a perfectly self-contained story. Reading the Wikipedia entry for Lovecraft's novella had me grinning at connections I'd missed, but they were surplus to requirements.
Reading as much as I do for review and analysis, I'm always grateful for books that captivate me to the point that I forget my surroundings, or what purpose I had in reading them beyond enchantment. I woke twice, reading The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe: once in the final act, and once at the end of the book. The first waking felt like breaking the surface of a lake and breathing clear, bright air; the second felt like looking out at the ocean at night.
I can't wait to find out what it does to my dreams.