The Bees

Author: Laline Paull

Subgenre: Dystopian Fantasy

I had been looking forward to reading The Bees since I saw it was nominated for the Locus Award for best fantasy novel of 2014, and this debut met my expectations overall. I’ve had a fascination with bees for several years now, and I was excited to find a novel set in their world. While the setting is new and exciting and the story richly executed in detail, the characterization falls a little flat, but that might be an inherent shortfall of keeping to the science of life within a buzzing hive of bees. However, Laline Paull deftly creates a world of magic and corruption interwoven into the structure of a beehive which helped make this work a well-deserved contender for a 2014 Locus Award.

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




Writing Mechanics


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.

The House of Black and White

Games of Thrones: Season 5, Episode 1

Directed by: Michael Slovis

Written by: David Benioff & D.B. Weiss

Based on: A Song of Ice and Fire [series] by George R.R. Martin

Has anyone else noticed that the narrative through the first two episodes of Season Five seems to be neatly separating characters off into pairs? I assume this is intentional, a useful way to offset the sheer volume of the cast: each duo’s exploits can be chopped up into pithy vignettes that offer a bit more chance for localized character development than a traditional ensemble menagerie. Today, I will use the water cooler to make my predictions (and they will be honest predictions; yes, we all know about the leaks, but I won’t be watching episodes three and four until their air date anyway) regarding this season’s buddy system. And what better way to do it than through movie analogies? Well fine, okay, I imagine there are quite a few better ways, but I’ve settled on movie analogies, so if you don’t like it, just scream at me on Twitter or something (please don’t).

The Speculative Post's Review

Sansa Stark and Petyr Baelish in Lolita: Sansa is becoming more and more like the precocious, self-assured nymphet and titular character of Kubrick’s film (an analogy to Nabokov’s novel would not work as well, so we’ll stick with the flick). And just like James Mason, Baelish has taken to trying to kill anyone who pays her too much attention. Coincidentally enough, the beginning of this season has them on a potentially sexy road trip through Westeros to some unknown location where Baelish intends to keep her “safe.” I’m trying really hard to think of some good jokes to make about this, but the whole situation is just giving me the jibblies. If everything pans out as in the film, I feel sorry for the poor sucker who’s going to wind up getting a sword through the face whilst playing the piano.

Brienne of Tarth and Podrick Payne in Terminator 2: Judgment Day: After Brienne and her sword finished giving pursuing knights a brief lecture entitled “this is what happens when you wear plate mail over every inch of your body except your neck” she tells Podrick “you can stand up now.” I don’t know about you, but all I heard was “Come with me if you want to live.” And let’s be honest, Pod’s only chance of surviving for any stretch of time in Westeros is Brienne, who is pretty much the closest thing in GoT to a cyborg killing machine from the future. Though I will admit, Petyr kind of had a point: for someone who is clearly among the most talented fighters on the continent, Brienne has thus far had comparatively lousy success rates in the important field of “preventing people from dying when she’s promised to do just that.”

Jaime Lannister and Bronn in Beverly Hills Cop: Holy crap, Bronn is back! Honestly, how perfect was that transition cut!? As soon as Jaime quipped “I never said I was going alone,” my immediate thought was “please be Bronn, please be Bronn.” So yeah, I think we know how this goes down: Bronn and Jaime go to Dorne, where Jaime is uptight, by-the-book Judge Reinhold, and Bronn is loose cannon (I think “results-oriented” is a nicer way to say it) Axle Foley. I envision a ton of ready-made fish-out-of-water scenes just begging to be filmed, including “Bronn, in his innocent, boorish way, takes a leak on something that turns out to be a priceless artifact/a religious icon/someone’s dad,” and “Bronn does something rash, and Jaime rolls his eyes and says ‘here we go again!’ as they beat a hasty retreat.” Speaking of Bronn…

Bronn and his fiancée in Dial M for Murder: Yeah… Don’t lie. After the cute-yet-awkwardly-annoying scene of her badgering Bronn on a beach, you also assumed he was going to just knock her out, steal her jewelry, and then skedaddle to a brothel. Bronn is a fascinating character in that way: he’s one of the most unapologetic dicks in the show, and yet we love him seemingly because of his capacity for dickishness.

But maybe the dickishness is behind him. Maybe… Maybe he thought he was out… And they pulled him back in!

Cersei and The Small Council in Grumpier Old Men: Not that the grump levels are actually unreasonable or anything, because, you know, it is pretty obvious what kind of shenanigans Cersei is trying to pull. In some ways, I want to feel sorry for her, because it does seem like the Crusty Old White Man Brigade is resisting her because she’s a woman more than because she’s a sociopath trying to control the kingdom by manipulating her young impressionable son. But then she goes and starts having dwarves murdered because she wants Tyrion dead so badly, and well, you know, the sympathy meter starts falling again. Anyways, my hope for the rest of the season is that the Council scenes are mostly just Pycelle complaining about gout and trying to get Cersei to execute the kids who walk on his grass.

Tyrion Lannister and Varys in Road to Meereen: Okay, it was either this or Twins, but I like to imagine that both Tyrion and Varys have a little of Hope and Crosby in them, so this makes perfect sense. Presumably, once in Meereen, they’ll both fall in love with Dany and spend the film trying to one-up each other while also foiling some swarthy foreigner’s dastardly scheme to usurp the throne. And no, I didn’t make that up; it’s more or less the plot to Road to Bali (film buff side note: Bali is a weak late entry in the series, start with Morocco or Singapore), so there’s historical precedent here. The thing is, it’s hard to figure out which of the two is the straight man in this pairing, mostly because Varys won’t stop blathering about politics and the “greater good,” and Tyrion’s too damned depressed to be anything but blackly comedic. If one of them doesn’t cheer up, I suppose we’ll find out what a comedy duo comprised of Laurel and Costello would have been like.

Arya Stark and Mel Gibson [The Man Without a Face] in H’Arya Potter and the Chamber of Secrets: I was honestly a bit baffled by the Braavos scenes (besides my slight sigh of annoyance when it was revealed that of course every city in Essos looks like Cairo or Venice). Okay, sure, we all expected that when she got where she was going, there was going to be some kind of cryptic secretive nonsense and some kind of weird test she’d have to pass to prove herself or something… But, what exactly did she prove? She sat outside in the rain all night, then wandered off, killed a pigeon, and almost got in a fight. And that was enough to bring cloaked Hagrid out of the shadows to proclaim “yer a wizard, Arya!” Well, let’s just focus on the fact that Arya is going to SOIF Hogwarts to learn how to turn into an old black man and/or Jaqen H’ghar at will.

Doran Martell and Ellaria Sand in Game of Thrones Season One: Let’s be frank: Alexander Siddig is a boss. He’s the man. He’s on a boat. He is also Doran Martell, and Doran Martell is going to fucking die. As soon as he said “we do not mutilate little girls for vengeance,” his fate was sealed. Because we all know what happens to people with scruples in this show. So, the way I figure it, in this configuration, Doran is Ned Stark, Ellaria is Cersei, and his head is going to be spiked like Prom punch by the time we hit episode nine. Let’s enjoy it while it lasts though, because motherfucking Doctor Bashir is on Game of Thrones, y’all!.

Shireen Baratheon and Gilly in Reading Rainbow: I don’t have too much to say about this. I just like the idea of Shireen being the Levar Burton of Westeros. And so do you. Hopefully, when Shireen becomes the head of House Baratheon, she changes their words to: “Take a look. It’s in a book.”

© 2013 - 2015