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Published in 2014 as the debut novel of playwright Laline Paull, The Bees is a dystopian thriller set in a bee-hive. Some liberties in the honey bee biology may have been taken to lend a human slant to the actions of the bees – Class, caste, and motherly love are common stories in our repertoire – but we never lose the sense of the bees being different. So there’s a brilliant balance of the reader being able to experience the otherworldly quality of the interactions in this ancient society, while still being able to relate to the main character.
The protagonist is the fascinating worker bee, Flora 717. Born into a hive on the brink of change, she is part of the lowest caste of this totalitarian society. ACCEPT OBEY SERVE is the motto drilled into every bee mind several times a day. From the moment she is born we sense danger all around her.
As she smashes her way out of pupating cell, her sister worker bees emerge more delicately, already in tune with their lowly caste. They are born to blend into the background, largely unseen and unheard. Flora by contrast is built to stand out, her mind and appearance do not conform. She is always in danger of being executed by the hive police who dispatch bees for various transgressions, but the worst offences appear to relate to fertility – deformity and variation are not tolerated, and none but the Queen can give birth.
Flora 717 is saved from the police and if you’re intending reading this book I’ll let you discover for yourself the how, why and whom by. Suffice to say that Flora 717 is very strong and a quick learner.
The world-building is fabulous, whether the scene is based in the hive or out in the open it’s fascinating for the reader to experience their usual perspective of the world suddenly re-imagined from in bee-sized perspective.
In no time Flora 717 is given the unique opportunity to leave her humble origins behind and soon rockets through all the ranks. Finally after an act of tremendous courage, Flora gets to meet the Queen herself. But here is where the sense of unease about the hive starts to ratchet up even more. The pace of this book swaps wonderfully between calmer periods where the reader traverses the somewhat eerie hive landscape, and periods in which the threat to Flora and other bees is palpable.
It’s a fascinating, disorientating, maze of a miniature world. And Flora, might be the hives biggest threat or it’s only salvation.Flora 717 is disturbingly different, and for various reasons she soon finds herself living a double life, a loyal member of the society and to the queen, and yet a traitor struggling to survive the fertility police and the religious cult. Some parts are almost humorous and that’s a good thing because there is a crisis and we’re looking hive collapses that from various modern.
I thoroughly enjoyed this read.