Audiobook Review: The Bees by Laline Paull
Genre: Dystopia, Science Fiction, Science Fantasy
Publisher: Ecco (May 6, 2014)
Tiara’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Narrator: Orlagh Cassidy | Length: 14 hrs and 12 mins | Audiobook Publisher: HarperAudio (May 6, 2014) | Whispersync Ready: Yes
“The Queen is dead! Long live the Queen!”
In simplest terms, The Bees is a novel that explores the phenomena of colony collapse in bees with a speculative slant. In more complex terms, this is a dystopian novel that takes issues ranging from racism to self-acceptance and investigates them in this structured “society,” entwining science and myth to present a story that is both analytical and dreamy. It’s a little strange to call this a dystopian story when you have the bee world under a human world that operates “normally.” In fact, readers only see humans briefly a total of four times during this story. We do get to witness the affect that humans have on the bee world, though. And even later, we find out that this story runs concurrent to a human story that we don’t witness, but readers learn is represented symbolically through the bees story.
The hero of the story is Flora 717. We start at her birth where she narrowly escapes the Fertilization Police whose job consists of eradicating anything that doesn’t fall within the hives standards of normalcy. Flora is born too large, too dark, and she’s born into the lowest caste in the hive–sanitation. However, she’s born able to speak unlike other members in Flora. She also has the special ability to make Flow, a substance used to feed the Queen’s offspring. One of the hive’s Sages has mercy on Flora to sedate a curiosity. Flora overcomes many insurmountable odds to reinvent herself many times while in the hive, moving from the nursery to sanitation to foraging. Her actions decide the fate of her hive.
Flora lives in a world that subsists on rules, duty, Mother’s Love (a ritual involving the Queen giving off a scent that reminds the hive of her “love”), and appreciating Maleness (represented by spoiled, lazy male bees with names like “Sir Linden” who use crude language while speaking like they’re Victorian transplants). This world reminds her that she falls short of perfection repeatedly while demanding her loyalty, obedience, and her sweat. These are things that Flora is willing to give to her hive regardless of being an anomaly until she encounters the strongest emotion of all.
Orlagh Cassidy (great name!) narrates Flora’s story from the days she spends sheltered in the hive to her feeling of freedom as a forager. Some of her voices can sound similar, but I sort of wrote this off because the bees are a hive unit. There’s not supposed to be much variance between them in their respective jobs, so it makes sense that many of them sound like the same bee. The voices she uses for the Sir Maleness bunch is hilarious. It may not be the most manly thing you’ll hear from a female narrator, but she captures the tone, the arrogance, the entitlement dead on. It’s really hard not to chuckle a little bit the males. Her voice for the Spiders, especially the Black Minerva, was notable as well. The Spiders, along with the bees’ cousins the Wasps, serve as one of many outside antagonists in this story. The Spiders are witch women, truth-filled villains who speak hard facts if their high price is met. However, Cassidy’s voicing of Flora is where she excels and manages to capture the most variance and emotional nuance.
Complaints? There are a few. This first complaint isn’t really the book’s fault. Again, who is writing these blurbs where they insist on comparing books to other pieces of existing literature? This is really starting to get ridiculous. Let’s just strike this book being like The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale. The only thing this book has in common with The Hunger Games is the fact that its “citizens” are divided up into different groups, which could be like any piece of media (or real life) that divides its people up. Now, it does share a similar sentiment and atmosphere as The Handmaid’s Tale, but comparing it to that book overlooks the unique angle that Paull takes with her story.
Second, the presentation of the social issues can sometimes seem a bit too abstract. While reading this, I wondered if the messages of things such as racism, sexism, and class issues might be lost on some readers. Despite what emotions this book may tug in readers, it’s easy to disconnect from the underlying message because BEES! I might’ve pondered this a bit too much while I was listening to this. Also, I applaud Paull for using science (while taking liberties, of course) and trying to combine it with myth, but there are some bits that can come off a little too dreamy and fairy tale-like such as the Melissae, which is what the Sages call their collective group.
Overall, Flora’s story is a compelling, emotional journey. She’s tough both physically and emotionally while being tempered with inquisitiveness, independence, and sensitivity. I’m still asking myself how I managed to be gut-punched in the feelings by bees.