Laline Paull’s debut novel is set inside a hive of bees. The protagonist, and heroine of the tale, is lowly sanitation worker Flora 717. Straight from the start it’s obvious Flora is a special case. Bright, sharp, inquisitive and strong. The backdrop of the hive is seen from her perspective, as she evolves from naïve outsider to determined veteran.

In relative terms her switch is rather fast. Such is the life of an insect. However, in the early chapters there is a slight lag. It isn’t immediately dealt with in a smooth fashion. Paull has to present certain cases and events to build up Flora’s – and the reader’s – understanding of hive life. Information that serves 717 later on in the tale.

As Flora absorbs this we take in the world that Paull creates. From cold insect perspectives (they have no qualms about acts of genocide for the greater good of the Queen) to the rigid structure of the society they occupy. All done for “devotion,” an addictive chemical release from the Queen that brings about glee. Always with the mantra: “Accept, obey, serve.”

Throughout the tale Paull interchanges bee physiology with anthropomorphism. This serves to keep Flora’s tale flowing, and after the first third it never lets up. The author also leaves much of the metaphors that apply to human society to the reader’s interpretation. How we perceive their individual messages will say much about our own personal views.

At the heart it is a tale of supressed love, the control of many by the elite few, how faith can be controlled by those that are faithless. It isn’t the political allegory Animal Farm was for its generation but it doesn’t attempt to simplify an ever increasingly complex world.

In the end The Bees is a sweet tale with a sting in its tale.

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