Flora and her sisters dragged one drone after another out into the corridor, and all throughout the Hive was screaming and pleading and the high thick smell of blood as every single sister took active part and every drone fled for his life towards the landing board. Males who fell were dragged struggling out into the dazing sun, and there they were dispatched, down into the grass where the Myriad crawled to eat them alive, or tossed out upon the air they once ruled, flying towards death on torn and bloody wings.
Flora 717 is born a large, hairy sanitation bee—a lowly worker in the sacred hierarchy of the Hive. Yet, from birth, Flora is singled out by a high Priestess Sage to serve their great, holy Queen as a nurturer in her nursery. Over the days and weeks, Flora will serve her Hive and her Queen Mother in many ways—producing the royal jelly, protecting her sisters from the invading cousin wasps, foraging the great fields beyond the walls of her sacred home and bringing news of the world outside.
But one thing is certain—Flora sins. For Flora does the impossible: She breeds.
Laying glistening eggs of her own, Flora knows that her existence is blasphemy—only the Queen may breed—yet she cannot turn herself in for a merciful death at the hands of her sisters. Flora loves her eggs; she loves her own life every bit as much as she loves her Queen Mother and her family. Even as the future of her beloved Hive comes under question, Flora begins to question the blind truths of her family and their religion. And nothing will ever be the same again.
Accept. Obey. Serve.
It’s rare to come across a book as mind-blowingly imaginative as Laline Paull’s The Bees. It’s even more rare for such works to be successful, well-written, gripping stories. Paull’s novel—a strange, poetic tale about a homely sanitation bee and her place in the Hive—is both unique and triumphant. The Bees is an utterly memorable wonder of a novel.
Part of the reason for the success of Paull’s ode to the honeybee is her wholehearted commitment to their story. The worldbuilding never falters and is amazingly comprehensive—The Bees shows life within the sacred Hive with its many rooms and secrets, as well as traversing the outdoor world with its many dangers, including pesticide-ridden fields, portent spiders and greedy wasps. The novel’s most impressive facet, however, comes from its description of Hive life and hierarchy, as Flora’s kind are, for lack of a better word, complicated.
The Hive is a place where every member bee knows their place. The beautiful, refined bees serve the Queen as her handmaidens, while sleek Sage sisters tuned into the Hive mind become Priestesses, overseeing important jobs and areas: the nursery, the library, the management of the Hive’s day to day organization. There are proud foragers who brave the world outside to bring home pollen and nectar, as well as preening male Drones who desperately (hilariously) yearn to fight and mate with any Princess bee who will have them. (On a side note, the gender politics of the Hive are just as complex as the rest of the novel. Oh, and there’s a gleeful, vicious massacre scene. Stay for the massacre.)
And then, the lowest of the low, there are the stunted sanitation bees like Flora, who are too ugly or too stupid to do anything but clean waste. These structures are rigid and finite; but somehow, everything changes with Flora 717, who defies her lowly caste. The most fascinating and impressive thing about The Bees is how I never once questioned the world, its characters, or its structure—the Hive and all of its honeybee members are written with such conviction and convincing authority that one doesn’t question—one simply accepts Paull’s word as true. (Seriously, I finished the book thinking, so this is how honeybees communicate and organize themselves!)
The bees of the Hive also share a unique religious fervor and dedication to their Queen Mother, who is the Hive’s purpose and its god. Flora’s world is one where devotion and love are united; where it is more than just heresy, but death for the entire Hive should even one bee question or displace the Queen’s vitality. Flora is an aberration (or is she?), but while she is undoubtedly loyal to her sweet Queen, she also feels a passionate, protective love for her three illicit eggs. Flora’s existence, and her instincts toward her children, is blasphemous, but also holds meaning for the future of her Hive—the novel questions and examines the structures that are imposed by Flora’s society, and expands the metaphor without ever feeling heavy-handed or didactic. (And isn’t that what great dystopian speculative fiction is meant to do?)
I can safely say that I haven’t read anything like The Bees before—at least not since discovering Watership Down for the first time. And honeybees, in this reader’s opinion, are far more interesting and complex than rabbits.
In sum, I say this: Do yourself a favor and read this book.
In Book Smugglerish, 9 glistening eggs out of 10.