Fledgling by Octavia Butler

If you’re not an ardent science fiction fan you may not have heard of Octavia Butler. Suffice to say she is to sci-fi what Tiger Woods is to golf and Ozwald Boateng to men’s tailoring, an outsider whose talent bought her a ticket to the party then elevated her to VIP status.

In Fledgling Butler’s final novel before her premature death, she works a remarkable transformation on the hackneyed vampire myth.

Society is more likely to accept a vampire in your car than a young girl of a different race.

Her protagonist, Shori is a young black girl who barely escapes a brutal attack on her family. She wakes from a coma to ravenous hunger and a black hole where her memories should be. When Wright Hamlin, a white man, drives by and stops to offer her a lift we quickly discover two things; firstly Shori’s food of choice is blood, secondly society is more likely to accept a vampire in your car than a young girl of a different race.

Wright doesn’t deposit Shori at the hospital as he intended, it seems her saliva contains an enzyme that allows her to bend the will of those she feeds on. Instead he takes her home where the pint-sized vampire regains her memory while they indulge in a Lolita-esque relationship. It’s not long before the quiet idyll of this new home is shattered by another tragedy and it is soon clear that Shori was the target of both attacks and whoever orchestrated them will not stop until she’s dead.

The murder-mystery central plot is compelling and certainly keeps the pages turning, but let’s face it, thanks to Stephanie Meyer and Charlaine Harris we’re all feeling a little drained by the vampire trendwagon.

Her vampires co-exist peacefully alongside humans in matriarchal societies modelled on African village life.

Thankfully, Butler’s world of the undead manages to avoid being tedious or tired, largely due to the rich new mythology she brings to the genre. Her vampires co-exist peacefully alongside humans in matriarchal societies modelled on African village life. Their feeding rituals require blood from several human ‘symbionts,’ human blood-banks with whom they also enjoy sexual relations. It’s an arrangement that could be easily mined for its erotic potential but is instead used cleverly by Butler to provoke the boundaries of our moral comfort zone. Shori it turns out only looks pre-pubescent, she’s actually in her early 50s. Yet, while we’ve become inured to ancient male vampires – cloaked by the appearance of youth – seducing innocent young girls, Butler forces us to confront the reverse, and it’s surprisingly discomforting: “He covered me with his huge, furry blanket of a body. He was so tall that he took care to hold himself on his elbows so that my face was not crushed into his chest.”

The story culminates in a gripping courtroom drama that echoes Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. It’s a conclusion fraught with hairpin twists and a wrenching discussion on the nature of prejudice that churns your emotions like a machine spin cycle.

Butler has delivered a multilayered tale that manages to be both exhilarating and meaningful. If you haven’t read it this novel should go straight to the top of your list.

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