RHC 2019: The Bees by Laline Paull

Read Harder Challenge 2019

This post is part of a series in which I describe the twenty-four books I read in 2019 for Book Riot’s Read Harder Challenge

Task: A book in which an animal or inanimate object is a point-of-view character.

I wholeheartedly love talking animal books, which I know aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. I grew up with a steady diet of horse books, dog books, bear books, wolf books, mouse books, and rabbit books (more on that, inevitably, in a sec). I don’t read many mysteries, but I loved Three Bags Full (the detectives are a herd of domestic Irish sheep). A Dog’s Purpose nearly sent me to the hospital for emergency rehydration. I love plenty of comics in this vein as well.  

Of course there’s no talking about talking animals without mentioning Watership Down, which I think numbers not only in the highest ranks of talking animal stories but in that of English-language novels, period.

There’s no way to read a book like The Bees without thinking about those rabbits. Laline Paull pretty clearly knows that – her bees refer to their natural predators as The Myriad, which is a nice echo of The Thousand. She doesn’t go so far as to give her bees an apis (apine?) language, but there is a common tongue among insects that’s reminiscent of Hedgerow. She’s also developed a very logical religion for her characters, complete with Deuteronomy-style codes of conduct (“only the Queen may breed”) enforced by capital punishment. 

A lot goes right here, and if you’re looking for an offbeat novel with an unusual protagonist and a highly detailed world, this is a good choice.

I had some problems, though, and I’m going to try to articulate them. There’s something very 1984 and/or Handmaid’s Tale about this story (one of the bees’ repeated refrains is “accept, obey, serve”). Its central narrative is about a heroine challenging the status quo through willful disobedience. All of that is fine. Except for the fact that they’re bees. All I could think watching A Bug’s Life was that while I wholeheartedly espouse its message of marching to one’s own drum, it’s about eusocial insects, and I kept having that same feeling here.

The Bees is different from A Bug’s Life in that no one really steps out of his/her biological bounds, but colony life is still presented in pretty grim dystopian terms. There is change, but it’s either one that leads to an impossible A Bug’s Life-y revolution or just more of the same, and neither one of those felt like a satisfying story arc to me.

In Watership Down, the rabbits’ rabbityness was an existing circumstance of the plot, not a driver of it and definitely not an antagonistic force. Every once in a while one of the rabbits would push past its species limitations a bit (Blackberry figuring out how to use a raft), but the reader never wants them to figure out ways to not be rabbits. A book like the bees was hard for me to read without wanting everything about bees to change.

I hope that makes a little bit of sense.

Now,  I think I’m being way too hard on The Bees, which, again, is creative, fun, and taught me a lot about the workings of a beehive. It reminded me of my experience reading The Hunger by Alma Katsu and then reading the Wikipedia article about the Donner Party and being astounded by what was based in reality. So, overall verdict – a fun read with strong writing and excellent supporting research, but lacking the very particular emotional core I was looking for.

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