Weird, Magical – and Hella Feminist
(Full disclosure: I received a free ebook for review through NetGalley.)
When were women ever anything but footnotes to men’s tales?
“Some people change the world. And some people change the people who change the world, and that’s you.”
— 4.5 stars —
When third-year student Clarie Jurat goes missing from Ulthar’s Women’s College, her Mathematics professor Vellitt Boe sets out to retrieve her. Clarie’s father is one of the College’s Trustees, and it’s well within his power to shut the college down in the face of such scandal. This would prove a devastating loss, as the Women’s College – the newest and humblest of the Seven Colleges of Ulthar’s University – is a sanctuary of sorts for “women who don’t fit anywhere else” in the Six Kingdoms.
Vellitt lives in the dream world, a universe crafted from the minds of dreamers in our own world, the waking world. For whatever reason, all of the dreamers seem to be men – and they have dreamed into existence a world that is mostly absent of women, deeply entrenched in sexism, and ruled by gods that are as petty as they are numerous. The Women’s College is a beacon of light in an unkind world – and Vellitt, for one, is determined to keep the flame burning.
In her younger days, Vellitt – then known as Veline – was a far-traveller; she walked the lands of the Six Kingdoms, traversed its seas like her mother the sailor, and fell into and escaped from the under-realms. She has evaded zoogs, battled ghouls, rescued gugs, and marveled at krakens. She’s seen flying cities and passed over vast undersea civilizations. She knows all ninety-seven stars in the dream-realms sky, and can name the six constellations. Now she must call upon these dusty skills – and a few old connections – to find Clarie before she crosses into the waking world with the charismatic dreamer Stephan Heller.
Her quest will take her from the temple at Hatheg-Kla to the distant kingdom of Ilek-Vad; from the caverns carved deep beneath the ruined silver mines of Eight Peaks to a church in Wisconsin, present day. Along the way she’ll learn that Clarie Jurat isn’t who she claims to be – or not just, anyway – and it’s not only the fate of Ulthar’s Women’s College that’s at stake.
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is the sort of book I hate reviewing, on account of my words could not possibly do it justice. This is a magical and imaginative tale, one that’s subversive and thoughtful but also damn entertaining. Johnson immerses you in the dream world, giving you just enough information to stoke your imagination, but not nearly enough to sate your appetite. She leaves you wanting more, but it’s a good hurt.
Vellitt’s world is weird and kind of wonderful (albeit in a horrifying way), and populated by all manner of unusual creatures. (This would make an amazing movie, okay.) I especially loved the story about Veline and the infant grog, and how her random act of kindness paid off all those years later. And the 1971 Buick Riviera was a great touch. It kind of reminded me of Dean’s ’67 Chevrolet Impala; specifically, how Gabriel stuck Sammy inside of it, Knight Rider styley, in “Changing Channels.”
This is the sort of book an e-reader was made for, and I took frequent advantage of my Kindle’s built-in dictionary and internet access. It seems like every page had at least a few unfamiliar words; some of French, Roman, or Greek origin, others made up entirely. There are geological terms, seafaring terms, and a boatload of botanical terms. Yet it doesn’t feel stuffy or pretentious, but rather befitting the surreal and enchanting tone of the story. Some sentences sound almost like word salad, but in the best, most bewitching way.
Inspired by Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Johnson playfully explores the absence of women as a function of the creator’s own imagination (or lack thereof)…or perhaps as a deliberate omission, fueled by sexism. In Vellitt’s world, women are the minority, and they are predictably marginalized as such. (In fact, the whole vibe brought to mind Lyra’s Oxford in His Dark Materials; retro in ways both good [Victorian steampunk] and bad [policing of women].) While visitors from the waking world are rare, every single one she’s met has been male. Yet Vellitt herself dreams, and dreams big; perhaps there is another dream world, one made by the dreamers in the dream world? And maybe those dreamers dream still others into existence?
Once she asked Carter about it. “Women don’t dream large dreams,” he had said, dismissively. “It is all babies and housework. Tiny dreams.” Men said stupid things all the time, and it was perhaps no surprise that men of the waking world might do so as well, yet she was disappointed in Carter. Her dreams were large, of trains a mile long and ships that climbed to the stars, of learning the languages of squids and slime-molds, of crossing a chessboard the size of a city. That night and for years afterward, she had envisioned another dream land, built from the imaginings of powerful women dreamers. Perhaps it would have fewer gods, she thought as she watched the moon vanish over the horizon, leaving her in the darkness of the ninety-seven stars.
A whole ‘verse created by unconscious makers – how shiny would that be?
Johnson also addresses Lovecraft’s racism through Vellitt who, with her coppery skin and silver-and-black cords, is arguably a woman of color. (Saving the Six Kingdoms from total annihilation? #BlackWomenDidThat)
Honestly, there’s just so much great stuff in here I can’t even. I hope Johnson returns to Vellitt’s world in the future; there are so very many avenues of exploration. I’d love to see the flip side of this, a world made true by women dreamers. Or I’d love to learn more about the grogs and ghouls; maybe a short story told from their perspectives? I’ll take anything, really!
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: Yes! Inspired by Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, Johnson imagines a world that’s created in part through the dreams of men: sexist and ruled by petty gods. Yet women like Vellitt Boe and Clarie Jurat persist and resist and flourish nonetheless.
Vellitt is a fifty-five-year-old professor and former “far-traveller, a great walker of the Six Kingdoms.” She has coppery skin and black-and-silver hair that naturally twists itself into locks. When she visits a hairdresser, the woman styles her hair into “many tiny shining silver-black ropes.” Most likely she (and many of the students and professors at Ulthar Women’s College) is a woman of color, a direct challenge to Lovecraft’s racism (just as the feminism is her response to the “total absence of women” in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath).
Animal-friendly elements: Not so much, though there is a lovely little tale about how, many years ago, Vellitt saved a young gug (a six-pawed, vertical-mouthed creature that exists in the dream world) from a trap. When Vellitt is captured and imprisoned by the ghasts during her quest, the now-grown gug comes to her rescue.
Vellitt had once saved an infant gug that had fallen into a pit and been pierced by punji stakes. Already the size of a full-grown wolfhound, and already stocky, ugly, and fetid, the creature had no neonate attractiveness, but she had been alone in the under-realms and this pierced, crippled creature was the first thing that did not strike sick horror into her soul. By the faint light of lichens, she had lowered herself into the pit and levered the young gug free. Though it must have been in great pain, it did not struggle or bite her, but held still, its vertical maw agape in silent panting, expelling the reek of carrion inches from her shoulder. At last she rocked back on her heels and said aloud, “There you go;” and at the sound of her voice, the gug leapt to its six paws and bolted. Only then did she see the other gugs gathered at a distance: adult, gigantic, alien, and terrifying. They had been watching her. She was sure that, had she made different decisions, they would have destroyed her. The infant ran between their feet and was gone; a moment later, the adults followed, and she had followed them, having no better plan for her deliverance.
The busy millipedes scuttered through the secret places of the gug city and left traces wherever they walked of Vellitt Boe’s tears. And a certain gug, grown to full size and dwelling a thousand leagues from the flesh-lined den of its infancy, padded upon six paws each a yard across, along steep ramps and up broad stairs and over a soaring stone archway that bridged the shaft shared by two cities; until it stalked through the alleys of the ghasts, cracking apart such structures as stood in its way, following a scent it remembered from its earliest youth. For gugs forget nothing.
After the rescue, she continues to guide Vellitt through the under-realms, accompanying her into the waking world. But, since our world has no room or schematics for a gug, the animal is transformed into a 1971 Buick Riviera.
She leaned against the gug’s hood, feeling the steady rumble of the old V-8. The long haunch of the left rear bumper had been damaged in the past and repaired with Bond-o that hadn’t been painted over yet, just where the infant gug had been transfixed in the ghouls’ pit-trap so long ago. How did it feel about this transformation? Did it feel despair, trapped in steel, toothless and clawless, never to taste flesh again? Or did it delight in the bright taste of gasoline, the speed of its new muscles, the ways that clever warm hands would repair its ills?