Fiction – paperback; Grand Central Publishing; 310 pages; 2005.
While I’ve studiously avoided the current Twilight craze, I’ll admit that I’m not averse to reading novels about vampires. I loved Anne Rice’s early work (which I read in my 20s), very much enjoyed Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian and thought John Ajvide Lindqvist’s Let The Right One In was a surprisingly intelligent horror story.
But Fledgling, which presents a new twist on the vampire legend, lacks the spine-tingling horror I’ve come to expect from the genre. Instead, this is a book, deeply rooted in science fiction, which examines issues of race and identity, sex and sexuality, biology and genetic engineering. There’s even some law and politics thrown in for good measure.
In this novel Butler portrays vampires as a much-maligned race called Ina. The central character, Shori, looks like a little black girl but she is really a 53-year-old vampire who has been genetically modified so that she has extra melanin in her skin to allow her to walk in sunlight. This is supposed to be a step forward for the Ina, but there are some who think that Shori poses a threat to the purity of the Ina race, and will stop at nothing to destroy her.
When the book begins we find that Shori is recovering from one of those plots to kill her: she awakens in a dark cave, burnt from head to toe, and with no memory of what has happened to her. Indeed she has no knowledge or awareness that she is a vampire. It is only when she is picked up by a young man, as she walks along a deserted road, that her desire to feed off him reminds her that she is an Ina, not a human being.
Much of the book revolves around Shori and her symbionts (the humans she feeds off in a kind of mutually dependent relationship) going on the run from those who want her dead. There’s a lot of gun-slinging before the story morphs into a kind of courtroom drama in which those responsible are held to account for their crimes.
I have to be honest and say that this book didn’t exactly grab me by the throat (pun fully intended). The prose felt a bit pedestrian and the dialogue awfully contrived. There were elements that just made me go ewwww and there were times I wasn’t sure I really wanted to continue. But… there was something about the narrative that sucked me in (another pun, I’m sorry) and I did want to keep reading if only to find out who was after Shori and how she would go about saving herself and those like her.
Octavia E. Butler was a highly regarded prize-winning author of science fiction. Fledgling, published in 2005, was her last book before she died, aged 58, in 2006.