A 2017 Nebula Award finalist in the novella category. Written by Kij Johnson, the book is a brilliant spin on H. P. Lovecraft's semi-obscure Randolph Carter story The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Whereas Lovecraft's story featured a male protagonist from our world adventuring in a Lovecraftian dreamscape, Johnson turns it around with a female lead who is native to that world, and who has to try and find her way to ours.
It's not necessary to be familiar with Unknown Kadath to enjoy this new work, though it helps to explain the intrusion of various oddly named Lovecraftian monsters like Gugs and Shantak birds and locations like the city of Ulthar and a vast underground world. The Cats of Ulthar and even Randolph Carter himself make an appearance, but you won't need prior knowledge about the cats, the character, or the world, to enjoy this tale.
We start out with a crisis in a women's college. A student has gone missing, and title character Vellitt Boe needs to find her. Initially the motivation is to save her college embarrassment and potential financial impact, but things turn darker as we learn more about Boe's world. It is a small world populated by monsters and vicious, petty gods, and if Boe fails in her quest the consequences could be dire. We learn more about the world as Boe travels, how it has only ninety-seven stars and how even the distance between two points is volatile and capricious. The missing girl is a Macguffin for most of the book, serving to motivate Boe but really just providing an excuse to lead Boe, and the reader, through the world.
The book's rich and evocative descriptions make it a compelling read, as the story takes Boe briskly from haunted wood to spooky temple, from perilous sea to drafty castle, and finally to creepy underdark. The author pauses a few times to take a poke at Lovecraft's blind sexism, but in a gentle and corrective way. I did feel firmly nudged by 'message' in a couple of spots, but it;s almost tongue-in-cheek, especially when Randolph Carter exhibits a Lovecraftian disregard for our female hero even as she stands right in front of him.
The ending is a lovely surprise that I won't spoil, leaving me hopeful that we might have another Vellitt Boe adventure in the future.
The book's cover (by Victo Ngai, with cover design by Christine Foster) depicts the title character during her travels, with companion cat. There seem to be more than ninety-seven stars, but I commend the artist and Tor books for eschewing some sort of Elder Gods monstrosity.
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a fast, entertaining read. I enjoyed it, and compare it favourably with fellow novella nominee The Ballad of Black Tom, which is also a Lovecraftian riff. The two novellas otherwise have little in common, but they do show how the bones of Lovecraft's world can be used to tell very different but equally entertaining stories.
Like fellow nominee A Taste of Honey, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is published by Tor, as a brisk 165 page book. I've discovered that I am too busy to get through a full novel before the local library wants it back, and novellas are a perfect size, especially if you need to review them for a Quest.
In December 2002 we were asked to remove copies of certain Lovecraft works from this site. It's interesting to see that things have evolved to permit this sort of "inspired by" work to flourish.
I borrowed it from the library and just finished it. I think that I will now buy my own copy, which from me is a strong endorsement.
You can view the cover art unsullied by copy. As mentioned it appears to have too many stars, but is gorgeous nonetheless.
Nebula 2017 novella nominees reviewed on e2:
I continue to work through the other 2017 Nebula novella nominees.
Sneaking through an eldritch portal to emerge inside SciFiQuest 3017: The Frontier that Wouldn't End just before Tem42 can weld the hatch shut.
SFX: Motion tracker beeping.
Virgil: Brawl's still noding. Four writeups. Five.
Cool Man Eddie: That can't be, man; that's inside the room.
Tem42 looks up at the ceiling....