I really enjoyed this novella. It is in dialogue with a short story by Lovecraft, which I have not read, but you don’t need to read that to enjoy this. And fortunately for me, this is fantasy, not horror. It is set in a portal world clearly conceived as the stuff of nightmares, with monsters, shifting natural laws and an angry sky; if this were made into a movie the horror would be inescapable. But through the eyes of a protagonist who hails from that world, these are simply facts of life, evoking no fear or disgust.
Vellitt Boe is a professor at the Ulthar Women’s College. She had an adventurous youth before going to college and settling down, so when a student runs off to the “waking world” (ours), putting the college in danger, Vellitt sets out on a quest to retrieve her. It’s an engaging story, written in Johnson’s smooth-flowing style that makes the book feel as much like literary fiction as fantasy. The world is highly imaginative, brought to life with a texture that must be Johnson’s own. And Vellitt is an interesting and endearing character, with a quiet toughness and the good sense one would hope for from a middle-aged adventurer.
This could easily have been expanded to a full-length novel, and I’m unsure why it wasn’t: Johnson takes some shortcuts through the waking-world portion, and the end is really the beginning of something else, providing little resolution. But it succeeds in telling a good story, while responding to the sexism and racism that was apparently rampant in Lovecraft. Sometimes Johnson is quite pointed in this, in other places subtle: Vellitt is apparently a woman of color, but the only indication I saw was the description of her hair. And when she arrives in the waking world, she remarks on the large numbers of women there, a clever dig at male-created fantasy worlds populated overwhelmingly by men.
Overall, I definitely enjoyed and would recommend this, along with Johnson’s other works, particularly Fudoki. I haven’t seen a bad book from this author yet, and look forward to more!