It only took two bus rides and a 40 minute ferry to finish the novella (I'm really liking the novella as a medium), and I just have to rave about it before I do anything else.
I loved this novella. I will happily read anything if I like being in the head of the main character, and I loved being in Vellitt Boe's head. Competent, intelligent, mature, responsible. Sensible. Willing to leave everything safe and comfortable to travel through an unpredictable and horrifically dangerous landscape so she can save what she values. (It helps that what she wants to save is education for women.)(Later the stakes get higher, but at the beginning she's willing to risk her life so that the Women's College doesn't close. I love this woman!) And she looks forward to the journey, she enjoys it, because that's the kind of person she is. A far-traveller.
Reminded me a lot of Rowan, Steerswoman. If you liked those books you'll like this one.
Part-way through there was something bothering me about the world-building, but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. The world is crazy-imaginative, gorgeously-weird, evocative, lush—but it's missing something, some dimensionalilty I couldn't define. It stood out because the characterization was so complete that it seemed odd the world wouldn't be equally filled-in.
I went to see what other people were saying about the story, and that's when I discovered that this is an homage to an H. P. Lovecraft story called "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath." Suddenly everything made sense.
I've never been tempted to read Lovecraft, but I've encountered his mythos and heard both the positive and negative things said about his writing. Wonderful, brilliant, and deeply flawed appears to be the consensus.
Johnson immerses us into the wonderful and brilliant, clearly highlights the flaws, and transforms the world through the eyes of Vellitt Boe so that the flaws become irrelevant. Lovecraft's apparently long-winded purple prose is evoked in Johnson's poetic (but much sparer) language. His self-absorbed, sexist characters are ever-so-lovingly, ruthlessly skewered by Vellitt's clear-sighted observation. His racism is just gone, because Vellitt treats every sentient being (and there are monsters: this is Lovecraft after all) as an individual judged on its own behaviour. (I loved the character of the gug.)
The conclusion of Vellitt's quest is epically satisfying on so many levels. I appreciated the novella for its clever reworking of the source material (still not tempted to read the source material!) but I also loved its character arc and plot resolution in and of themselves.
(In case I haven't convinced you to read this yet, how about positive, supportive female friendships? Yes? You don't realize how much you want to read them until you do and you're like, why is this so amazing? They're small but essential parts of the narrative.)
Immediately went looking for what else Kij Johnson has written, and—more instant reading material!—there's a short story on her website called "26 Monkeys, Also The Abyss" (which you have to read just for its title, right?). I LOVED THIS STORY! Gahh. No words. Just ... it's perfect. Going off to read more of her short stories now.
Kij Johnson is a lot like T. Kingfisher, as a matter of fact. So, so bloody refreshing! Icy cold glacier water rushing over rocks on its way down the mountain you just climbed.