Review: Fledgling by Octavia E.Butler

‘When your rage is choking you, it is best to say nothing’

***Trigger warnings for racism, physical assault, death of a parent, sex with a minor, blood drinking and violence off page***

It’s 2021 now and the plague times are wearing on. I, a wee book obsessive, am forever on the look out for the next great vampire novel. If you pop into my blog sometimes, you might have seen I made a mini TBR of some vampire books in my possession a few months back and slowly I’ve been getting through them. Fledgling was next on the list as well as the best so far.

Fledgling, Octavia Butler’s new novel after a seven year break, is the story of an apparently young, amnesiac girl whose alarmingly inhuman needs and abilities lead her to a startling conclusion: She is in fact a genetically modified, 53-year-old vampire. Forced to discover what she can about her stolen former life, she must at the same time learn who wanted – and still wants – to destroy her and those she cares for and how she can save herself. Fledgling is a captivating novel that tests the limits of “otherness” and questions what it means to be truly human.

I absolutely adore Octavia Butler and this is the best vampire novel I have read to date. No questions. Everything from the exquisite writing, to the story structure, to the deconstruction of race and the vampire mythos, I’m just more angry that this was the last thing Butler published before her death in 2006.

The book is essentially doing two things. Both are deconstructions of age old tropes and attitudes and seek to reconcile what a vampire really is. Vampires have long since been used as allegory for the outsiders of our society. Women trying to achieve independence, discussions of sexuality and gender, metaphors for race, ,members of the LGTBQ+ community, discussions of AIDS. The vampire story exists to discuss the people society forget. This book is Octavia Butler turning an unflinching eye, focussing on race in particular and to no surprise, and tearing apart everything you know about these stories. Her vampires, the Ina, are neither undead or the type of vampire that reanimate the dead. Instead being a species of people descended from aliens who form symbiotic bonds with those they feed from.

Shori, our protagonist, has to learn how to be Ina again. When she wakes up from a vicious attack, she is totally unaware of her kind or even her own name. She is the only black vampire in existence as a result of a massacre (including the attempt on her own life) has left her without family. It works well for a reader to learn alongside her, Butler always achieves excellence in world building and the people of her worlds, but it also does well to remind us at every turn how hard Shori has to work to prove her own authenticity. Later on in the book, Shori is trying to control her anger. Another Ina she meets later on reminds her, warns her;

‘You, more than anyone, must show that you can follow our ways…You must seem more Ina than they.’

This reminds me a lot of some of the moments in my previous read, Sorcerer to the Crown, where the main character must maintain his calm even at times where people were trying them. He wasn’t permitted the freedom of an emotional outburst, because he was the first African man in the position of Sorcerer Royal. Despite being from these people and trying to find her way back to them, Shori has to do the same. She has to prove to these people, that being black doesn’t make her any less an Ina than the others. Because she isn’t, she’s more.

The Ina can’t go out in sunlight or in the daytime, like most vampires. not only for burning up but they don’t have the cognitive function to remain awake. Shori doesn’t need to sleep during the day due to her difference in colour, the other Ina being extremely pale white. She can go out once covered. She has the same reflexes. She is also strong in the traditional sense, protecting her new found family in places where the other Ina wouldn’t be able to. The message itself is clear but it’s the subtle nuances she applied to this and putting this into a vampire story that is so beautiful in simplicity it’s astounding.

Definitely the other aspect here that I think can definitely steer people away from this book is the interrogation of how relationships are established, both between humans and vampires/Ina. The Ina are a poly amorous and the relationships they conduct with each other and their symbionts are far beyond the subjective relationships we consider “the norm”. Heterosexuality and monogamy are pretty non existent, we learn this as Shori does with her ‘first’, Wright. Now I popped a trigger warning at the top so this is where the warning about the underage sex comes into effect. Wright is 23 years old where Shori is 53 years old but she looks like a 10 year old girl. They have sex not long after she bites him first and they continue this way for the rest of the book. Wright is uncomfortable with many aspects of the Ina ways of living but “sharing” Shori is the main issue;

‘That is the most unromantic declaration of love I’ve ever heard. Or is that what you’re saying? Do you love me, Shori, or do I just taste good?’

There is no way to have a comfortable discussion about any aspects of this, but I did feel to the need to mention it. Butler isn’t here to hold anyone’s hand and if any changes are to happen in our future, like that of the Ina, we have to move out of our comfort zone.

I really can’t stress how this book managed to blow me away. I honestly don’t know how any new vampire stories can match up for what this book tried to do and achieved in spades. A friendly Twitter person in my mentions mentioned (huh huh) that had Butler lived, this book was to be the first in a trilogy. I’ll always pity the loss. Thanks for checking in folks. Happy reading!

★★★★/5

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