Fledgling by Octavia Butler was the last novel Butler published during her lifetime. The book is an original take on Vampire lore that, like all of Octavia Butler’s works, is rich in symbolism and racial allegory. Originally published in 2005, the book was one of only two standalone novels that Butler wrote. Her other standalone novel, Kindred, was the first Butler book I ever encountered. After reading it I became a fan of her work, but following her death I was unable to read Fledgling until very recently. The untimely death of the first African-American science fiction author was a blow to my younger self and I mourned the loss of her creative mind for years. Reading Fledgling was bitter sweet because I adored the story, but knew that I would no longer be able to look forward to another Octavia Butler release.
Fledgling has a disjointed beginning as the protagonist, a female of indeterminable age, awakens severely injured, without any memory, and struggling to cope with agonizing pain. Once she is physically recovered enough to explore her surroundings she is discovered by Wright, a laborer who lives near the site of the young girls wandering. Though the girl appears to be a 10 year old African American, her desire to drink Wright’s blood reveals that she is a Vampire. After meeting a person who claims to be a member of the girls family, the two discover that the girl is a 53 year old Vampire named Shori. Her darkened skin is the result of genetic experiments designed to allow her kind, the Ina, to walk in the sun without being burned and the ability to stay awake/lucid during the day. Shori and Wright believe that along with answers to their questions they have found a safe place to live while Shori learns about herself, the family she has lost, and the Ina in general until events similar to the ones that left Shori injured result in the deaths of her newly discovered family. Shori must undertake a journey to find others of her kind and ultimately discover why she and her family have been targeted. Hampered by her ignorance, youth (in Ina terms) and responsibility for Wright and the other humans she takes under her wings, Shori must struggle to avenge her family while securing her own future.
I am someone who is very selective when it comes to vampire fiction. A novel that revolves around vampires needs to have a strong plot, well written characters, and avoid formulas that the genre has beaten into the ground. Fledgling meets all of my requirements and is a highly unique novel that is a breath of fresh air in an over-saturated genre. Though Shori is later shown to be stronger and more resiliant than any human, she is initially very vulnerable, traumatized, and a character that readers instantly care for and empathize with. The introduction of the Ina, their history, and the multiple characters was handled smoothly. No section of the book felt over stuffed, characters were well developed, and it was impossible for me to put the book down once the story picked up. As an Octavia Butler fan I did not expect to disappointed, but I was sad when I reached the final page because there was an overwhelming sense of finality. I knew there was no chance that I would read another book about Shori and her family.
As much as I loved the book, the initially pacing was frustrating and a little disjointed. After Shori woke up and healed it felt as though she spent a great deal of time exploring the ruins and wandering through the woods. After meeting Wright the story picked up, but again there were slow parts as Shori fed on other individuals who were ultimately dismissed without ever furthering the plot. Also, the initial relationship between Wright and Shori was very disturbing. While the reader knows she is not human, it was still unsettling to read about the relationship between Wright and a girl he initially thought was approximately 10 years old.
Even though the uncertainty surrounding Shori’s age was off-putting until that issue was resolved, Fledgling is an amazing read. The unique vampires created by Butler leave behind some of the stereotypes and mythology that fiction readers are familiar with. Most importantly, Butler crafts a story that is rich in symbolism and themes. Racism and the ideas of racial purity are discussed using a vary unusual vehicle in the form of Ina who are attempting to preserve their species. While the Ina themselves are introduced as a group who do not view race, the introduction of the possibility of racially motivated actions closely resembled modern discussions on racism by those who have experienced it have with those who believe racism is no longer prevalent.