The Bees is an enthralling and gorgeously written tale in the tradition of Watership Down. The frightening realism coupled with the brilliant world-building makes for an experience that will haunt you long after the story is over.
Flora 717 is born in to the lowly sanitation class of her hive but upon her emergence it is discovered she can make Flow, an essential food source for the babies. She is put to work in the nursery and rotates through several roles. Later an act of bravery is rewarded with a day spent with the Queen and her attendants. There Flora “reads” sacred texts and learns of a frightening prophecy that will affect the hive. Winter is coming and as the cold bears down on the bees, sickness and old rivalries threaten to tear the hive apart from the inside even as forces align against them on the outside.
The Bees is a simple tale but told with such detail and realism that you fear at every small treachery and celebrate at every triumph. At first I was having a difficult time with my suspension of disbelief regarding the inner workings of the hive and behavior of the bees. After I went to Wikipedia and looked up “honey bees” did I see how close to reality Laline Paull hewed with the customs and actions of the bees. Everything from the roles of the hive, mating rituals, the roles and act of foraging, dancing to communicate direction, the use of scent and antennas, combat behaviors, and many other details large and small are based on actual behavior. This grounding in reality helps the reader to then make the leap to seeing the bees as thinking creatures, capable of intelligent decision making and language.
Flora 717 is an outstanding character in her own right. She is loyal to her hive yet also an individual and is constantly at war with herself for whom to stay true to. When she has a deadly secret and is forced to shield her thoughts from the sinister Fertility Police her allegiance is truly tested. The class that is most instrumental, and relentless, in her evasions are the Sister Sage. They are the Queen’s priestesses and keepers of order in the hive. They alone seem to be in command of the Hive Mind as well. This Hive Mind works as a sort of mind control on the bees and can influence individual behavior even against their will. Tying in to this is the Queen’s Love, a powerful pheromone that the Queen exudes to calm and nurture the bees. Paull describes each class of bee well and while there are only a couple of individual characters other than Flora 717, the consistent nature of each bee in her class makes the various sisters somewhat interchangeable. This works to streamline the story and keep it from being bogged down with dozens of characters.
The world of the hive is fascinating but when Flora 717 takes on her role as forager the scope changes dramatically. Paull writes gorgeous passages describing the ecstasy of flight and the almost sexual connection between flower and honey bee. This is also where her descriptions for the anatomy of the bee is truly amazing. The foragers are the most daring of the hive and the description of their mechanism for flight – their “engines” – as well as how they find flowers and their way back home is fascinating and wonderfully evocative. Seeing our world from the bees’ perspective is also fascinating and horrifying in some cases. Flora 717 must navigate various deadly obstacles like deadly pesticides, rain, and even cell phone towers and these scenes are all enormously suspenseful.
Insects and animals that pose a threat to the bees and hive are collectively known as the Myriad and pose a significant threat. The various enemies encountered and how they are depicted is darkly beautiful. Wasps are deadly and cunning, Spiders are described as “oily and malignant” and each enemy has their own way of speaking. Spiders are tricksters and speak in riddles and lies, wasps are proud warriors and boasting. Confrontations between the bees and Myriad crackle with intensity and were some of my favorite parts of the book.
Laline Paull has taken an interesting subject and infused it with such detail and creative story telling that The Bees truly deserves its place among the great modern works of fantasy. It is an outstanding and unforgettable book and I could go on for another 1000 words and still not properly convey everything I loved about it.
Do not miss this one.