My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Before reading this story, I highly recommend reading Lovecraft’s ‘Dream Cycle,’ or, at the very least, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7…) as this is a commentary on it. Kij Johnson’s piece is both an homage and a criticism. She captures the wandering, questing tone and the series of encounters with eldritch and weird situations perfectly – I would venture to say that her writing even improves on the originals.
But what convinced me to up this to four stars was how much I enjoyed the reversal of perspective. Lovecraft’s cycle of tales posits a strange land which can be visited only through dreams, and his protagonist Randolph Carter is the typical Adventuresome and Exceptional Man. Here, our protagonist, the middle-aged professor Vellitt Boe, is an inhabitant of that fabulous dream world. Of course, to her, it’s just where she lives. Indeed, to her, the “waking world” is the land of fable and mystery. Johnson does this extremely well, showing a world which to Boe is quotidian – but without losing its exotic tinge for the reader.
Professor Boe teaches at a women’s college. When one of her young students elopes with a man from the waking world, she drops everything on a quest to find the student and fetch her back before the inevitable scandal gets out. The incident would very likely result in the whole school – one of the few opportunities available to inquisitive and intelligent women in this world – to be shut down in disgrace. As her mission takes her farther and farther from her comfortable and respected position, Vellitt Boe recalls her youth as a far-traveling adventurer, and her own affair with a man of the waking world.
It’s a great story, evocatively told. Its only weakness was that at times, it gets a bit message-y in its pointed criticism of Lovecraft. Yes, Lovecraft was both a sexist and a xenophobe, we know. He had a terror of anything and anyone that her perceived as ‘other.’ This story has none of that, and it ably illustrates the limitations and traps inherent in such a worldview – but it stands perfectly well on its own without having to drive the point home as it occasionally tries to.
Overall, definitely recommended for both Lovecraft’s fans and foes.
Many thanks to Tor and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.