Review: Fledgling, by Octavia E. Butler

FledglingA young girl awakens in a cave, blind, aware only of pain and the need for fresh meat, fresh blood. As her sight returns and she begins to heal, she also begins to discover her own nature, that beneath the exterior of a prepubescent child lies a 53-year-old predator. In the absence of any memories of who she is, how her kind function, or what damaged her so badly and caused her amnesia, she has to begin to piece together a new identity and find her way back to her own kind.

I don’t usually enjoy amnesia plots very much. Going into Fledgling, I expected I’d be impatiently awaiting the resolution of the memory loss and the beginning of the ‘real’ story. It was to my surprise that Shori’s amnesia was actually my favourite part of the book. Butler does a really great job with the slow emergence of self from an animalistic state, the hints of recognition in the unfamiliar that never quite pay off, the discomfort of encountering people who knew and maybe loved who you were before and knowing that you have to disappoint them with your inability to be that person right now, and maybe ever again. I also appreciated the fact that she really committed to that aspect of the story and didn’t bring in some magical mojo to fix it, which is an unfortunate cliche that must surely be even more tempting in a story where the sort-of-supernatural could be used to explain things away.

Shori’s initial explorations of self take place within a relationship that is on some levels deeply repellant to read about, and it’s an interesting way to bring home the otherness of what she is. On the surface, you have a ‘child’ who looks to be about ten or eleven years of age entering into an intimate relationship with a grown man, which if the child were human would be a despicable thing. When the child is actually a decades-old blood-drinking inhuman in a childlike shell, actually older than the man she’s involved with, that changes the dynamic considerably… But then we find out that despite her age in human terms, Shori is a child by her people’s standards, and I’m back to feeling ambiguous and icked out by the whole thing.

It’s not the only way in which the book messes with issues of consent, either, and again, that’s one of its most interesting layers. Shori’s kind enter into symbiotic relationships with humans, rather than existing off of them solely as parasites, and the humans do get a really good deal out of it, including great health and incredible longevity. But it comes with a price, part of which is that the symbionts, once bonded, can never leave, and can never really disobey. It’s a compulsion built into the blood. When that relationship is entered into with informed consent on the symbiont’s side, maybe that’s fine and dandy — but when the vampire creating this relationship doesn’t remember that fact about herself until it’s almost too late, until the choice she’s offering you to flee is barely still a choice at all, it’s pretty damn awful, in my view. I think it’s some very good character work on Butler’s part that I went back and forth between being horrified by Wright, and horrified for him.

Shori’s narrative has a kind of formal and detached tone to it, which keeps the reader at arm’s length, but it worked for me because I dislike reading about vampires who all sound like disaffected 21st century hipsters. I enjoy vampire stories in which the vampires have, to some degree, an alien mindset, and one of the best ways to capture that feeling is with their use of language.

It was after the midway point where things started to fall apart. I was expecting it to remain more of a character study, but when the murder mystery takes centre stage, a lot of the good character work falls by the wayside. I was interested in delving deeper into what it was like for the symbionts who weren’t offered informed consent before entering into the symbiosis. I was interested in a deeper exploration of the racial component to the story, in Shori’s identity as a woman of colour since it was set up to play a pivotal role in why she and those around her were targeted, but that component ended up being very surface-level: It basically just amounts to ‘Yes, vampires can be racist too’. I wasn’t expecting social commentary on the level of Kindred, but when I know what Butler can do, it seemed like a wasted opportunity.

But we don’t get those things. Instead we get a vampiric episode of Law & Order, in which the proceedings are about as repetitious and dull as most courts where the defendants don’t have fangs. It seems an odd thing to say about a story whose issues include too much repetition, but I think it would have benefitted from being a longer book. The need for the court case to be the denouement, thereby forcing it to take the spotlight, would have been eliminated if we had gone beyond it to see Shori’s challenges in setting up a new community with no eldermothers to guide her path.

Perhaps another part of the issue is that the closure we get isn’t really for Shori or her story, it’s for the lives of people we never met and that the main character doesn’t remember. It’s hard to feel passionate about an aspect of the story in which the protagonist we’ve come to care for is sidelined by ghosts.

From that midway point on the pacing just isn’t there, and it’s the main reason why, despite Butler’s lovely writing and the fascinating premise, I can only say that I liked it, not that I loved it.

3 stars

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