Octavia Butler was a genius who died far too young. In her too-short oeuvre are many classics of science fiction, Hugo and Nebula winners, all of them dealing with race and power and oppression in some way. Fledgling
was (I think) her last book, or one of the last, and it's a fairly straightforward vampire story, except that as Butler handles it, the narrative is as deep and complicated as the story is simple.
Butler was not one of those writers who spent a lot of time crafting words, or if she did, she spent it on making them as readable as possible. Her style is sparse and simple, without any narrative flourishes. Sometimes, particularly in this book, where the POV character is a (sort of) child with amnesia, you could be mistaken for thinking you are reading a YA book, the writing is so unembellished, the vocabulary so unchallenging. Until you actually read the words.
But before he could reach me, before I could taste his blood, two of his sons and one of his brothers leaped up from the front row, grabbed him, and dragged him down. They held him while he struggled beneath them, screaming. At first, it seemed that he wasn't making words. He was only looking at me, screaming. Then I began to recognize words: "Murdering black mongrel bitch..." and "What will she give us all? Fur? Tails?"
Shori Matthews is a vampire. Or, as she learns once she finally meets some of her own people, an Ina, a race of long-lived beings who have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with humans since before recorded history. Ina have many of the powers and disabilities of classic vampires, though these are explained scientifically. The Ina also have their own culture and language, their own history, even their own myths and religions. They have adapted to living with humans in the modern world in secret societies with large numbers of human retinues (or "symbionts"); the relationship is generally beneficial for both sides, but when an Ina bites someone, their saliva effectively holds that person in thrall. Even though they feel as if they want
to be with the Ina, may even feel love and affection for her, it's hard to tell how much free will any of the symbionts have. Likewise, Ina culture dictates treating humans kindly and respectfully, but the Ina are no less prone than humans to violating their own mores.
All of these issues are more than thought experiments since, in the first few chapters of the book, we learn that Shori is physically a pre-pubescent girl, and the first human she meets, a grown man, takes her home and has sex with her. No one ever questions this or feels guilty about it - there is only some acknowledgment that other humans would not approve if they found out.
Not many authors can pull this off. Butler does, but she never makes it comfortable for the reader. Shori is physiologically about ten, but she is actually 53 years old. Which still makes her a child by Ina standards. And when she wakes up, she has total amnesia thanks to a devastating fire and what turns out to have been an attempt to kill her and wipe out her entire family, Ina and humans alike, which only succeeded in doing the latter.
So, you've got this prepubescent semi-immortal vampire with the mind of a memory-impaired adult and the life experience of a child running around making "voluntary" servants out of humans and having sex with them, male and female alike. Does this squick you out? I was surprised at how normal it became in the story, except now and then Butler would bring up another squicky little facet of this relationship, like, she wants you to sympathize with Shori and her symbionts and Ina in general, but she doesn't want you to get comfortable with them. Everyone in the story (except the villains) is quite likable and rational and they talk things out in a very straightforward manner, oh, except there are these grown men (and women) having sex with a ten-year-old girl. (Who's not really ten, or a girl, but...)
Yeah, you could spend quite a while unpacking that.
The plot is basically Shori finding out who wants to kill her and why. The "why" is answered fairly early: Shori, unlike most Ina (who are generally tall and thin and pale and burn like thermal paper in the sun) is dark-skinned. In fact, she's the product of Ina genetic experimentation, a human/Ina cross-breed. Her father was an Ina, her mother was a black human woman. Because of this, she can walk in the sun and remain active during daylight hours. Some Ina see her as deliverance from one of their greatest weaknesses, but not everyone likes the idea of future generations of Ina being part human.
This was a really good story, and one of the best modern treatments of vampires-as-protagonists you will find. And like all Butler stories, it raises lots of uncomfortable questions without answering any.
Much as I wanted to give Fledgling
5 stars, because I really enjoyed it, I had to knock one off because I felt the themes were not quite as well developed as Butler's Parable
series. Also, the motives of the villains seemed a bit thin in the end, their prejudices a bit cardboard, and the resolution was anti-climactic since by the time we get there it had already been made clear that there was little doubt about the outcome. But still, a great book for anyone who likes a bit of socially-aware SF with a serious treatment of vampires to disguise the more nebulous themes of consent and bigotry.