The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

You Never Can Tell With Bees (Review: The Bees by Lalline Paul)

24441639The Bees
Lalline Paul
Ecco, 2015

I have to make an admission before we get started: I’m pretty damn scared of bees. They don’t instill the same mind-numbing terror as wasps or my new Taiwanese nemesis the giant hornet. Still, it takes a lot for me to get through a book whose cover is swarming in aphids. I had to touch them!  From the outset The Bees was asking me to run away screaming and write a scathing review so that no-one else would have to suffer. Miraculously it’s had the opposite effect; I’m now somewhat neutral, leaning towards positive, in my attitude to bees and happy to recommend the book to all and sundry.

On the surface The Bees looks like it should belong in the children’s section. A humble bee named Flora 717 awakens within her hive and proceeds to join the work of her caste, namely cleaning, the lowest of all duties. All bees within her home are named for their birthline, from the Floras, through the humble Teasels guarding the young, to the eminent Sages who control the daily activities of the entire beetropolis.

Enforcing law and order are the bee police, sinister agents who patrol the hive in search of any transgressions. Order and conformity are of paramount importance. Any bee suffering the slightest deformity is executed and disposed of for fear of contaminating others. Any activity endangering the hive, even simply growing old, warrants death. The highest crime is daring to lay an egg. Only the queen may breed. No exceptions, no forgiveness. So when Flora begins to notice that she is somewhat different she lives in terror of discovery, struggling between her desire to keep her head down and the uncontrollable urge to explore her potential.

As you may guess, The Bees can be viewed as a fairly simple parable. It’s a tale which has been told countless times but for very good reason. Themes like the fight against conformity and the search for identity resonate with all of us, particularly those encountering them in their formative years. As such this is a book which will find a fond home in the heart of many an adolescent. It’s not just a YA work though, and the book contains enough complexity and depth to sway even an avowed melissophobe like myself.

Through excellent powers of description, Lalline Paul manages to create a bee hive which sucks us right down to their size. What feels alien at the start of the book soon becomes a living, breathing world, albeit a claustrophobic one. The release felt upon finally leaving the hive is exhilarating, just as the first encounter with the Myriad (those other insects with which the bees share their territory) is terrifying. Whether scurrying through the walls of her home or exploring the vast fields and orchards surrounding it, Flora’s experiences really come alive in the reader’s mind.

This same attention to details helps bring life and individuality to the members of the colony, a none-too-easy task given their reputation as identical clones with no sense of self. Rather than individual characters, Paul smartly focuses on bringing character to each caste as a whole. This is accomplished with particular flair in the case of the only males in the hive, the Drones. They are depicted as raunchy, dashing sky-pilots, ever in search of the princess with whom they will mate and start a colony of their own, regaling the humble sisters with tales of their aerobatic and sexual prowess. I have no idea of this was intended but I simply could not read Drone passages without thinking of Lord Flashheart in Blackadder Goes Forth. It’s uncanny, I half expected them to start saying “Woof!”

My only criticism of The Bees is that Lalline Paul injected (sorry) a little too much eco-preaching into the book. Actually in hindsight it was probably less than I thought but it smacked of the usual misinformed media/public hysteria which flies in the face of all evidence. Inconvenient truths like the fact that bee populations across the world have been increasing steadily all through this century, with the number of active hives rising around 12.5% since 2000, seems to pass a lot of people by. (Donning my flameproof suit right now)

That minor niggle aside, it’s a great book. It bounces between smothering paranoia within the hive to exhilarating flying adventures without and as a result never seems to flag. There’s always enough going on to keep you turning the page and the pay-off, while you can see it coming a mile off, is well worth the wait. This a perfect gift for the rebellious teenager in your life. Just make sure you steal it and read it once they’re finished.

This review was brought to you by Cannonball Jones.  The Bees is available now and would make an excellent Christmas gift to anyone who likes good books. Thank you to the publisher for providing us with a copy of this title to review.
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