Review by Renee Baer
May 11, 2017
This novella is basically a Lovecraft fan fiction, and well-written fan fiction is one of my guilty pleasures. I have always felt that The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, the Lovecraft novella upon which this tale is based, was more science fiction than horror. Kij Johnson seems to be very well versed in the writing style of this particular genre. Her descriptions are both surreal and enthralling and she truly does manage to capture the feel of a world that exists only in dreams. I did smile at the various nods to the original “Dream Cycle” works by Lovecraft, such as the cat at Ulthar, the zoogs, and the zebras.
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is on one hand a version of Unknown Kadath from the perspective of a woman who resides solely in the dream world. On the other hand it is something entirely different. Vellitt Boe is a professor at Ulthar College and she is tasked with retrieving one of her students who has run away with a man from the waking world. What could be a very interesting and exciting story is, unfortunately, saturated with a heavy-handed sociopolitical message. This ruined the book for me.
It seems that on every page the reader is reminded that women are not held in the same regard as men in the dream world, and the reader is obviously meant to be upset by this. Ulthar College is not some kind of dream version of Miskatonic, rather it is an establishment for women only. Vellitt Boe is meant to be the “Strong Female Protagonist.” Vellitt goes on the quest to rescue her student and it is implied that this is the type of mission a woman of the dream world would typically not undergo. Which is all well and good, but the fact that she is a woman is beaten like a dead horse (or zebra as the case may be). Therefore, rather than Vellitt turning out to be an interesting and multi-faceted character, she instead becomes a caricature. A story that could have seriously held my interest and been a real page turner instead became a chore, a book that I slogged through only because I had chosen to review the tale and did not wish to shirk my responsibility.
Though the Acknowledgments page has nothing to do with the story proper, what it revealed to me about the author made me dislike the book even more. Kij Johnson mentions that she read Unknown Kadath at the age of ten and was horrified at the “racism” present in the story. She suggests that later she was disturbed by Lovecraft’s “sexism” as well. She states that this novella is her “adult self returning to a thing I loved as a child and seeing whether I could make adult sense of it.”
One gets tired of hearing about all of the racism and sexism in the works of H.P. Lovecraft. My opinion is that if his writing has so deeply offended you, simply close the book and read something else. Pass by the Lovecraft section in your library or favorite bookstore. That’s what I will do concerning the works of Kij Johnson in the future.