“With a fine fierce sound the foragers unlatched their wings and the house bees cheered them on as they ran for the landing board, bright and steaming as the clouds released the sun.”
I first read about The Bees by debut novelist Laline Paull in CBC’s “Ultimate Summer 2014 Reading List.” Later, I skimmed feedback for this new title on Goodreads. Two reviewers piqued my curiosity: Elizabeth Fensin described the novel as Richard Adam’s “Watership Down with bees,” and the witty Will Byrnes claimed it “might make one think of [G. R. R. Martin’s] Game of Thrones Drones.” Those comparisons were enough to entice me, the woman who once had a bunny named Pipkin and who loves all things Westeros. What sealed the deal, though, was the golden cover design by Steve Attardo shimmering in my favorite bookstore.
From the moment she emerges from her wax cell, we accompany Flora 717, a large, unattractive sanitation bee. Unlike her silent kin-sisters, she is blessed with a voice. Flora possesses curiosity, strength, and courage that leads not only to new opportunities (like working in the nursery and eventually foraging for nectar), but also to grave dangers (like encounters with deadly wasps). She also has a secret that could change the lives of her hive mates, and she must go to great lengths to protect it. This reality proves difficult since the sinister, all-knowing sisters of “the Melissae, keepers of the Holy Law,” keep all bees in line according to the hive hierarchy. Also challenging to avoid is the lure of the “Hive Mind.” It’s a powerful, consuming telepathic force connecting the bees as a single entity. I was totally engrossed in Flora 717’s story, needing to find out if the Melissae and the Hive Mind would detect her secret.
In Paull’s riveting, epic tale, bees put their lives on the line to protect the Queen and the beehive. The author creates an entire world revolving around these fascinating insects to mirror societal hierarchies and environmental crises. Still, there is a significant difference between Laline Paull’s novel with those of Richard Adams and G. R. R. Martin: her story evokes the divine feminine. The undercurrents of maternal love, sisterhood, and a Mother God heighten the flow of the story at every moment.
I escaped to a world enraptured by the heavenly scent of the Queen’s Love and troubled by the prophecies of soothsaying spiders. I had to suspend disbelief to enjoy The Bees, because —let’s face it— the insects talk. Bees lunch in canteens, dream in dormitories, care for the young in nurseries, and worship their Holy Mother in the chapel. All events occur within the golden recesses of the beehive and the surrounding orchard. Some readers will surely have trouble immersing themselves in such a world. They’ll dismiss such fantasy scenarios by challenging them with real-life questions. This book is not for them. It’s for the readers who once fell in love with talking animals in Charlotte’s Web, who forever kept a place in their hearts for such reveries, even when dreamed up with adult concerns in mind.