I chose Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler
– I was fortunate enough to find that novel somehow and here is my review.
A girl wakes up in the middle of nowhere. She’s suffered a major trauma – her body is badly burnt and her cranium has been broken in at least two places. She doesn’t remember anything, not even her name, she is blind and very hungry. The story is told in the first limited person so you don’t know more than the girl herself – a confused, mauled victim of something which looks like a fire or an arson and a grievous assault.
After some days the girl grows stronger and regains her sense of sight as she hunts and eats raw meat. The fact that she is recovering surprisingly fast, being able to catch and kill deer with her bare hands despite her injuries, is a very good hint she might be something more than a human child. Then she finds burned ruins of a settlement. She dresses in badly-fitting clothes left scattered around and she goes out of the woods to look for help and company.
A car stops for her – it is driven by Wright Hamlin, a young construction worker who, seeing a lonely child on a road in mismatched clothes, decides to be a good Samaritan. The girl gets into his car but firmly refuses to be taken to a hospital or a police station. As Wright wants to take her there against her will anyway, the girl tries to get out of the running car and when she fails she bites his hand. After the bite the girl takes control over her rescuer – he agrees not to drive to a hospital, he gives her more blood and a shelter even though he clearly has second thoughts whether it is rational or safe. Now you are pretty sure you are dealing with a vampire child who will stop at nothing to find out who she is, who has attacked her and for what reasons.
What I liked:
The world building. I’ve read plenty of vampire books – romances, thrillers, urban fantasy, crime stories, steampunk, you name it – this one was really, truly different than the rest and I mean it in a positive way. It was so original and imaginative that I would compare it to the books of Scott Orson Card. Vampires, called here Ina, are presented as a sentient race; they take human blood and have to have human symbionts to survive but they are hardly like humans and shouldn’t be judged by normal standards. The more you find out about them the more you can tollerate and understand their customs and absorbe some disturbing scenes (see the next section below). It is definitely a novel with a science-fiction context.
The pace of narration was very quick and dynamic, maybe apart from the trial, described at the very end; anyway I’ve swallowed this book in two evenings and its plot kept me enthralled – I stayed much longer than I wanted to and I literally had to force myself to stop reading and drag myself to bed. It was addictive.
The main heroine, first named Renee by her rescuer and later called Shori, was as unique as the story itself – a dark-skinned vampire ( mind you the colour of her skin was actually an important advantage) with a very strong character. She was very intelligent, brave, loyal and quick-witted despite the horrible circumstances which broke her childhood. Overall I liked her very much and I liked the fact that Ina females wielded so much power and were so important (I can’t say more, it would be a spoiler).
What made me almost dump this one:
I admit I gagged when Wright and Shori went to bed and had sex for the first time. It was in the third or fourth chapter, right at the beginning. Let me explain: she looked like a small twelve-year-old, he was an adult guy, much bigger and allegedly physically stronger than her. Even if it seemed to be completely consensual it stank to heaven of child abuse. I had to stop, rewind a bit and think it over. Here is what allowed me to read on.
Shori belonged evidently to a different species; nobody knew her real age (only later in the book an attentive reader can find out that this ‘child’ is over fifty and it wasn’t the first time she had sex) and she was clearly in control of the situation. A girl who was able to catch and kill a deer with her bare hands and then eat the meat of her prey without using even the simplest tool had to be much stronger than any adult human so if she wanted to defend herself she would do it no problem. Still the thing that persuaded me the most and allowed me to continue reading at all were her mind control skills.
Wright seemed to be completely smitten by Shori from the very beginning and remained right under her small, dark thumb all the time- although he kept calling her a jailbait (so he knew the danger of child molesting) he never refused her anything. If she told him to go outside and sleep in the open air he would do it without one ‘but’. If she told him to sleep with her fully clothed and never touch her, he would obey. Shori dominated him from the very start; the fact that she was small and looked like a human child didn’t change it. It was disturbing and I felt I had to mention it in my review but the further I read the more understandable it became.
What I didn’t like:
I admit the book, although very intense, was also a bit too short – it didn’t explain all the questions about the Ina I had in my head. Butler herself passed Fledgling off as a lark (I bet plenty of authors would give anything for such a lark) but I heard the novel is connected to her other works, continuing the theme raised explicitly in Parable of the Sower, that diversity is a biological imperative. Still I regret the author didn’t continue this topic. I would love to see how Shori grew up.
It is the first but certainly not the last book by Octavia Butler I am going to read and, hopefully, review here. I truly enjoyed reading this story and getting to know its heroine.