I first learned about The Bees from reading a review from a fellow book blogger. The concept sounded really interesting so I was excited to acquire it during a recent book haul.
This is the first published novel from Laline Paull, and it was nominated for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. The protagonist Flora 717 is a sanitation worker, the lowest caste of bees in her hive. Flora quickly discovers that she is unlike the other lower bees. She is born slightly bigger and has abilities that one in her caste normally should not possess. Her curiosity is deemed as a sin in a world where she only needs to know three words. Accept. Obey. Serve. When dangers threaten the hive, Flora’s bravery and strength grant her rights leading to a multitude of adventures including access to the Queen. However, Flora is hiding a dark secret that not only threatens her life in the hive but leads her to question her entire worldview.
I love the detail that Paull used to render this fantasy world. After studying the biology and behavior of bees for several months, she was able to transform that knowledge into a rather detailed science fiction landscape. For example, several passages detail the ways bees communicate, such as through dance and use of their antennae. I feel like I learned a lot of great information behind the science of bees in addition to reading a great work of fiction. There is a very detailed caste system that drives the story, from the lowly sanitation workers to the holy priestesses to the Queen who is viewed as a Goddess. The males have their own special place on the hierarchy and are portrayed as spoiled and obnoxious members of royalty whose only true function to the hive is to service the Queen with offspring. Of course, the male drones are ritualistically slaughtered after their “services” are met, leading into one of the most disturbing scenes in the book!
Flora was an interesting character that constantly questioned the rulings of the hive. Normally, I don’t like the whole “chosen one” plot device in science fiction. I didn’t mind it here though due to how Flora possessed a certain naivety about her being special.
The story itself is quite riveting with a vast multitude of threats endangering the hive. Wasps, spiders, mice, and even human beings are described in frightening detail. It is a testament to Paull’s superb writing that she has transformed a simple beehive into an epic fantasy world that is filled with suspense around every corner. It was refreshing to read a novel in the dystopian vein that is told in a completely different way.
“Then kindly recall that variation is not the same as deformity.”