Kij Johnson’s novella The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a wondrous work of fantasy and empowerment, delightful in its progression and dream-like in its telling. It takes place in the land of dreams and follows the adventures – and quest – of one Vellitt Boe. A professor of mathematics at the Ulthar Women’s College, Vellitt is tasked with retrieving Claire Jurat, an escapee student who decided to cross into the waking world because of True Love.

Following in the footsteps of her missing student, Vellitt traverses lands, countries, and the sea encountering different creatures, difficult hurdles, old lovers, and friendly companions (a cat!) as she seeks for Claire. The quest – as most quests are – is manifold. Ostensibly the quest is to find her student and talk some sense into her (it is, after all, a duty of any college girl to be an example for other women), but the farther Vellitt travels, the more things unfold. Now we are talking about a memory-quest, remembering the time before she settled as a teacher, the time when she travelled all over those lands; now we are talking about possibly facing off with the crazy, capricious Gods of Kadath, who sleep for now but, if they awake and find out that Claire is gone, will wreck Ulthar and everything Vellitt has grown to love. For reasons better left unspoiled, this story has deeper layers and a surprising second storyline that is unfolding alongside Vellitt’s quest.

Vellitt’s journey is a tale of self-discovery, or rather, of redefining oneself, reencountering a person once thought to be lost forever. It’s also a tale about a beloved land with its problems, horrible oppressing Gods, terrible misogyny, and unfair treatment of women.          

Pragmatic yet adventurous, settled down yet yearning for adventures, Vellitt is a great, older protagonist who resolutely takes it upon herself to do her best and who is determined to see her quest through, regardless of the cost. And the cost is mighty as the story draws to a close with an utterly surprising, fascinating, and, I shall say, perfect note.    

The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is in conversation with H.P. Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, and it features the same creatures, the same world, and even a few characters from that novella. What it does not feature is racism; and it features women in abundance. Although I imagine that having read the original and possessing that particular framework would add an extra layer to one’s reading of this novella, I don’t feel like I have missed anything particularly important for having (purposefully) skipped it.   

In Booksmugglerish: 8 out of 10. 

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can also find them on Twitter.

Photography by Melissa Kaseman.