The Handmaid's Tale meets The Hunger Games in this brilliantly imagined debut set in an ancient culture where only the queen may breed and deformity means death.
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.
Thrilling, suspenseful and spectacularly imaginative, The Bees gives us a dazzling young heroine and will change forever the way you look at the world outside your window.
The Speculative Post's Review
What I loved the most about this book is its setting. It is obvious Paull did her research into the inner workings of a beehive: how the brood (baby bees), honey, and cells are cared for; the different roles the worker bees take on; and the world inside and outside the hive that presents challenges to their daily lives. With the protagonist exploring her own home, we learn of how the beehive is built and functions, and it is easy to envision this busy place with its important places that are similar to our world yet alien at the same time. There is the nursery where the honeycomb is filled with larvae, a Dance Hall that is for the bee “dances” that explain how to find food, and the holy places the bees congregate for Devotions.
Mixed in with a factual view of a beehive, Paull weaves a magical and mystical way of life into her bees. With the bees antennae, they touch the hive and each other to smell emotions and transfer memories from one to another. Stories are carved into the honeycomb, and with one touch of an antennae, a bee can read the story by seemingly being transported into it, like virtual reality.
The biggest critique I have is in the characterization of the bees, and I think it is almost because of the care Paull took to create such a magical setting that still remains true to what we have learned about honeybees. It’s never fully explained why Flora 717 is taken to do tasks above her status as soon as she emerges as an adult. She is larger than normal and can speak, which is strange for a sanitation worker, but it bothered me that a priestess took her to be a nurse as a “test” in the first place. Maybe on a second read-through that would become clear.
The bees are all born into different “kin” that are named after plants like Sage, Teasel, Lily, or Thistle. They work as nurses, foragers, or help keep order as priestesses. While they are also assigned numbers, they are all called the same name, so there can be several Sister Sages and Sister Teasels, and so on. It was difficult to get to know any secondary characters well because they are all basically of one mind, focusing on keeping to the laws of the hive. The Queen is an interesting character, but is only around Flora for a brief time. One forager seemed to have some personality, but also was not around long enough to really get to know her. The drones have the most personality besides Flora, but again, most appearances are short-lived. Many bees come and go, because such is the life of a honeybee, and in a world where uniformity is a must to survive, it is rare for a bee to stand out and be different. Flora is an exception to many rules and is a well-written protagonist, but in general, the other bees are nameless, and the different kin all share basically the same personality. They are worker bees. They do their duty and that is it.
I don’t think the lack of characterization necessarily hurts the story, but if and when violence befalls a bee, there’s little motivation to really care about that character. I think the bees lacked personality because they are all born into roles they dutifully fulfill until they die. I guess it just felt too much like the real thing; I would have liked to have more bees talking and engaging in less structured ways. That’s not to say there wasn’t any personality; there just wasn’t a lot of depth to those bees that we do get to know individually.
While I wouldn’t go so far as to compare this book to The Hunger Games, or really even to The Handmaid’s Tale (yes, there are similarities in the oppressive roles, but bee societies really do operate in a rigid seemingly caste-like system), I would compare this work to Watership Down more. I can’t look at a rabbit without thinking of that book, and I think this book does do a similar thing with honeybees. To me, The Bees was an enjoyable novel, a fantastical look at what it might be like if bees thought like humans while living how bees do. Their societies might seem oppressive and terrifying, but that’s our interpretation of what science has discovered about how bees survive. The Bees works as a dystopian story because as humans, such a matriarchal caste system is abhorred, but I was ultimately unmoved by most of the violence and big events because I accept that that is the way of their insect world. That doesn’t mean I didn’t get nervous for dear Flora 717 when she fought a wasp, or I wasn’t screaming mentally at her to not get any closer to the curious plant I knew to be a Venus flytrap, but I didn’t feel as emotionally distraught reading this book as I did reading The Hunger Games or The Handmaid’s Tale because those scared me and made me think the big question of “What if that actually happens?” This book made me think more along the lines of, “It must be tough to be a bee.”
Overall, I did enjoy reading The Bees. It was a quick read, and with Paull’s beautiful descriptions of the golden hive and what the vast outside world must look like to a small bee, I was kept engaged and read it in two short sittings. Even though I felt that every other character besides Flora 717 fell a little flat, their actions (and even lack of personality) made sense to the story. Through Paull’s simple yet descriptive writing, here is a story that forces you to imagine and explore a world we cannot see.
If you like books like the Redwall series by Brian Jacques, or Watership Down by Richard Adams, then definitely add The Bees to your reading list.