REVIEW: Fledgling by Octavia E Butler

Fledgling, Octavia Butler’s last novel, is the story of an apparently young, amnesiac girl whose alarmingly un-human 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.

Warnings: depictions of racism, underage sex

Category: F/M, F/F

Fledgling is a speculative vampire novel that leans heavily into worldbuilding lore and explorations of race and identity. It isn’t strictly speaking a horror novel, although it is about vampires of a sort, but it uses vampire mythos to explore many other much more human concepts. I should give warning, however, that it contains sexual content involving a very young character, and this content can certainly be uncomfortable or distressing to read. So, tread lightly if this is content that you find particularly disturbing.

Written in first person, this story opens with the lead character discovering herself, as she awakens in a cavern with amnesia. The audience knows, of course, that she is a vampire, but she is unaware of what she is, grappling with instinctual urges, hunger, and a confusion of identity. From this point on the story follows the mystery of what lead up to these events as Shori sets out to piece together who and what she is from various clues, and help along the way. The prose is exceptionally well written, engaging and in the moment, so that it feels vibrant and alive as Shori tells of her experiences. While the subject matter of the story may seem like it fits the horror genre, the actual meat of the story is more murder mystery and then eventual courtroom drama, and as such fits a lot more of the tropes of a noir. It’s gritty, it’s sensual, it’s emotional, and it has an even blend of action scenes and quieter, interpersonal moments.

I was amazed at how much raw emotion this story was able to convey. Shori’s grief, and her struggles with how much she has lost to amnesia, was all so palpable, and each time horror strikes she feels it deep in her soul. This is largely a murder mystery narrative rather than a horror story, and the prose lingers on her emotional existence in ways that really convey themselves to the reader. I felt with Shori through every emotional upheaval, and I adored the way her relationships, and vampire relationships in general, were depicted. Vampires in this story feel their relationships so deeply, and Shori’s journey with relationships and with loss is a heartbreaking joy to follow. Each character is interesting and unique as well, from Shori’s discovery of herself, to each of her human symbionts and their stories and backgrounds, as well as the vampires she meets and forms community with.

This book is mostly all worldbuilding and lore. The vampires, or Ina as they call themselves, in this story are unique from other vampire mythos; here the author has created a separate species of beings that are very inherently inhuman in a lot of ways, and have their own distinct cultures, traditions, and biological needs. They form symbiosis with humans when they drink their blood, and create poly families with their mates and human symbionts. All of this is is very interesting, though it is largely delivered through exposition and telling rather than showing. Since Shori beings the story with amnesia, her gradually learning about Ina culture is the vessel through which we, the reader, learns about it as well. As a worldbuilding delivering device it works well enough. What is also of interest is the exploration of race relations, as Shori faces racism in the book from other vampires due to her black human heritage. The prejudice faced here is explored as a crucial plot point, and the ending is vital to the larger point of the story; it delivers commentary regarding how prejudice is dealt with or reacted to. A haunting look at real world subject matter through the lens of the inhuman.

There are quite a few sex scenes in this book that explore power exchange in really intimate ways, as well as a delightfully beautiful portrayal of poly cultural dynamics. The sex, however, all revolves around Shori who is, by both human and vampire standards, a child. I found the exploration of sexuality with this character very unsettling, especially with all the descriptions of her body as pre-pubescent. That said, the scenes aren’t very graphic, and I really did enjoy the portrayal of tender power exchange and D/s dynamics, the loving care for her symbionts, and the ways in which the vampire bite has an almost hypnotic effect on them. Despite Shori being a child, she is the one with the power and the agency in all of these encounters, not her human partners. The push and pull between the need for sustenance and the need for intimacy was lovingly done, and the tricky consent issues inherent to vampiric symbiosis was really fascinating. The biological imperatives between vampires as well was an interesting dynamic, and the overwhelming animal nature of it all was very well done.

Personally, I would have been more comfortable with the narrative if Shori had been a bit older, but from a psychological level I am not sure that the story would have had as much impact. There’s such a strong theme of innocence and naivety against the more bitter, jaded world, and Shori as a blank slate from which to build newness, that I think her youth is a large part of what the author was trying to do with this story. Still, sexually explicit scenes involving a child are disturbing to read and for that reason I would caution readers who may be sensitive to this sort of content.

Have you read Fledgling? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!

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