Flora 717 is a lowly sanitation bee, but instead of being mute like the other members of her caste, she can talk and apparently make Flow to feed the larvae in the nursery. The sisters of the Sage clan (the priestess caste) take note and let her work in the nursery for a bit, since the hive is going through rough times and there aren't enough workers. Soon, Flora is experiencing things far outside the lives of the other sanitation bees, and she eventually realizes she is even more different than she realized, for she can lay eggs when it is a crime to challenge the Queen's fertility.
I keep seeing this described as "*Watership Down* with bees," which mostly seems accurate? Although I find it curious that *Watership Down* tends to be classified as fantasy while this is slotted under "science fiction" in Amazon, possibly due to the rural setting of the former and the more urban-esque landscape of the hive for this book. I'm also not sure I find it as political as the reviews comparing it to *The Handmaid's Tale*, possibly because the point of view is so alien in some ways. It's something I'd rather tease apart at a Wiscon panel or in discussion, because while some reviews have been classifying it as dystopic, I don't quite agree. There is too much actual bee biology for it to feel completely dystopic to me, particularly since the book is framed by a prologue and epilogue from the point of view of the humans who own the orchard the beehive is in; it didn't feel so much like it was comparing the human condition to the bee world and more as though Paull were focused primarily on fleshing out the bee world properly. I have to noodle a bit more on this, because I haven't thought it out enough.
She does a great job detailing her particular bee society and making it feel like a complete world, from the way the bees communicate via scent and chemicals to their worship of the queen to the foppishness of the drones. From the bit of browsing I did, it seems like most of the information is fairly accurate, except a spoilery bit in the end and the fact that bee roles are not nearly so harshly delineated irl. (Also, one beekeeper wrote a review in which they felt very put out about the negative depiction of beekeepers as the theives of the bees' carefully made honey. I have to say, I laughed.) I particularly loved the way religion and government are mixed up in the hive, and the look at the various castes and clans.
I did have some nitpicks, because it wasn't always as alien as I wanted it to be; Paull refers to things like bees bleeding or having their intestines torn out, which made me wonder if it were just a figure of speech or...?? Ditto mentions of things like goblets of nectar or plates of pollen. I also thought the prologue and epilogue should have been cut, because I am not here for human context and thoughts! I want weird alien life forms that are actually from this planet!
Anyway, this was a really fast, immersive read, and I still feel like there might be creepy-crawlies on me randomly throughout the day. (For insect-phobic people: I am pretty grossed out by bugs in real life and in pictures, but I'm mostly fine reading about them in books, from fictionalized bees to real-life parasites, so YMMV? I wasn't creeped out while reading, but my skin does start to itch when thinking about it afterward.)
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