Read from ~02/12/2022 - 02/19/2022
Last March, I read Octavia E. Butler's haunting time-travel story, Kindred, one of the speculative fiction author's first novels. Nearly a year later, I read Fledgling, Butler's unique take on the tried and true vampire archetype and her last novel before her untimely death. Reading these two books in (relative) succession was essentially an accident (I prefer reading standalone novels rather than series, especially now since I'm still suffering from nasty series fatigue), but a happy accident, nonetheless. Reading Fledgling after Kindred made it easy to see how Butler's craft evolved during her career. I also noted what stayed the same, what made Butler who she was as a writer. I'm happy to say that some of Kindred's best aspects persist in Fledgling and the changes made are largely for the better.
In Fledgling, we follow Shori, an amnesiac young vampire who has just barely survived a brutal attack on her life. Shori seeks out answers: who is she, what is she, and why would someone slay her kin and leave her for dead?
From the first pages, you can tell that Fledgling will have more action than Kindred. Hell, you might be able to glean that from the blurb on the dust jacket. While Kindred features time-travel, it's neither sci-fi nor fantasy. Dana is a normal woman in 1976 and when she travels through time, she deals with normal people in the early 1800s. The fantastical elements of Kindred don't extend beyond the act of time travel. Fledgling meanwhile, wears its fantastical elements on its sleeve — it's a story about vampires and it makes no bones about it. Unless you're Interview With a Vampire, you're going to have action when one of the world's favorite creatures that go bump in the night is afoot. The characters not only show more movement, but the narrative does as well — in Fledgling, we're never in one spot for too long. This makes for a very breezy read. That said, the book isn't action-packed by any means. If (faithfully) adapted, Fledgling wouldn't have the makings of a Hollywood summer blockbuster. There's a nice balance between action and more calm scenes.
In regards to what this meant for Butler as a writer, I'd say that it shows that she was more willing to lean into the fanciful to tell a gripping story. After years of practice, she was able to weave a thoughtful tale with action scenes when she largely did the former for her first standalone novel.
On the flip side, one the first things you'll notice is consistent between Kindred and Fledgling (and I'd wager all of Butler's works) is her adherence to interiority. Fledgling is certainly more plot-focused than Kindred (which is another positive, by the way), yet the plot is still ultimately driven by the characters instead of vice-versa. This isn't a story about things happening to people, but a story about characters reacting and making things happen. You'd imagine that Shori might not be particularly interesting thanks to her amnesia, but Butler might just be the author who pulls off amnesia the best. She depicts its unique sadness while effectively describing instinctual memory. And it goes without saying, but the emotions on display are raw.
Fledgling also differs from Kindred in that it actually has worldbuilding and lore. Okay, that's a bit mean, the minimization of the fantastical worked well for the story. But still, when you read speculative fiction, it's generally nice to have some explanation of the speculation, and Fledgling deliciously delivers. Fledgling's vampires, the Ina are very fleshed out in terms of lore and mechanics. Butler goes hard in explaining their history, making their inclusion in an otherwise standard world feel organic. Their existence isn't realistic, as they're still, you know, vampires, but its plausible. And in terms of mechanics, they're a fresh take on the vampire archetype. At this point, vampire stories doing the song and dance of “we’re not like those cliche OTHER vampires” is a cliche in and of itself. Fledgling does have moments where the characters riff on classical depictions of vampires, but I end up not minding too much because the Ina still feel like vampires. Unlike classical vampires, Fledgling's Ina aren't inhuman monsters, and they aren't inherently malevolent. In fact, given that Ina form symbiotic relationships with humans, it's in their best interest to live in harmony with a group of humans. Yet this doesn't prevent them from coming across as otherwordly creatures that shock and awe. They can perform impressive feats of strength, speed, and endurance. What makes the Ina unique is the fact that they're like succubi: inhumanly charming, able to coax you into doing things you normally wouldn't. The Ina aren't inherently evil, but they have the capacity to do evil. They're not out-and-out frightening, but they're unsettling in a way that feels distinctly human.
And of course, like Kindred, Fledgling is bursting at the seams with themes that use the fantastical to comment on our world. To wit, there's the plight and alienation that mixed-race people go through, the trauma of generational history erasure, racism, the analysis of what it means to work with someone vs. for them, how certain groups believe themselves to be morally superior to others when engaging in the same behaviors they criticize, and the nature of sexuality and polygamy, to name just a few.
I didn't have many criticisms of Fledgling. That said, the one criticism I did have is a pretty big one. It can, unfortunately, make or break your enjoyment of the story.
Let's talk about Shori's apparent age, shall we?
While chronologically, Shori is 53 and seems to essentially have the emotional and intellectual maturity to match, she has the appearance of a ten-year-old human. This would be fine, but sex is involved. Numerous times. While it's certainly not the most explicit sex I've read, it's still very uncomfortable. Butler being such a great writer, I can't imagine there's not a point to this. The only thing that comes to mind is it being a way to show the inherent power of the ina. Wright, an everyman, wasn't interested in Shori before she bit him because she appeared to be a child. Yet there are other ways to achieve this. I was able to look past this, but it's still something important to note.
But other than that, I really enjoyed reading Fledgling. It's always a good feeling when I tell myself I'm reading X amount of pages for the day, but I read much more because I'm enjoying the book that much. While I wish Butler lived to continue the series, the book has a satisfying conclusion.
It's a bit of a toss-up whether I recommend this or Kindred for one's first foray into the works of Octavia Butler. I think Kindred is the objectively stronger book — it's the type of book that sticks with you. That said, it sticks with you because it's so haunting. Kindred is a masterpiece, but it's the type of book I don't particularly want to read again due to how draining it is. It's a bit weird for me to say Fledgling is the easier recommendation due to the Shori situation, but the fact of the matter is that Fledgling manages to be an exciting and smart book without being too depressing, unlike Kindred. Not to mention, Fledgling better cements Butler as a speculative fiction writer. Kindred is the better read, but Fledgling is definitely the more fun and I tend to prioritize fun over “better.”