by Laline Paull
Format: Hardcover, 340 pages
Cover Art: "The Bees and Bee-keeping" from The Young Landsman (Vienna, 1845)
Release Date: May 6, 2014
Flora 717 is a sanitation worker, a member of the lowest caste in her orchard hive where work and sacrifice are the highest virtues and worship of the beloved Queen the only religion. But Flora is not like other bees. With circumstances threatening the hive’s survival, her curiosity is regarded as a dangerous flaw but her courage and strength are an asset. She is allowed to feed the newborns in the royal nursery and then to become a forager, flying alone and free to collect pollen. She also finds her way into the Queen’s inner sanctum, where she discovers mysteries about the hive that are both profound and ominous.
But when Flora breaks the most sacred law of all—daring to challenge the Queen’s fertility—enemies abound, from the fearsome fertility police who enforce the strict social hierarchy to the high priestesses jealously wedded to power. Her deepest instincts to serve and sacrifice are now overshadowed by an even deeper desire, a fierce maternal love that will bring her into conflict with her conscience, her heart, her society—and lead her to unthinkable deeds.
I'm always on the lookout for non-traditional stories so when I heard this was about bees I decided to give it a try. It's very intriguing novel giving a fantastical look inside a bee hive and follows the life of honey bee Flora 717, who is just a little bit different from other bees. The fantastical bit is key here because these bees are more than regular bees. The closest literary comparison I can think of is Watership Down. In the Richard Adams classic, the rabbits are more than rabbits: they can talk and think a bit beyond their normal kin. And yet for all that they are still rabbits. It is very similar with The Bees, though in this instance the bees are perhaps more anthropomorphized since bees are even more dissimilar to humans than rabbits are. The writing is not quite as good as the seminal rabbit tale, but it is quite engaging and I was absorbed throughout the story.
In fact, the bees might be anthropomorphized a little too much sometimes. Flora 717 becomes very secretive when she begins to lay eggs. She develops very strong maternal instincts as well so she becomes a loner and possibly a danger to the hive. I'm not sure just how likely any of this is, but I did wonder at the suspension of disbelief. Also, there are times in the text when the author uses a word with a very strong human connotation like "cup" or "plate" that should have no meaning for a bee. I think Paull was trying to help convey a basic idea with these words, but I do wish she could have found a more general term that could have embodied the same concept.
The Bees is a strong and interesting piece of fiction that should appeal to those looking for something a little different. The writing is good and provided a very unique and fantastical look inside a bee hive.