What a prosaic title for such a wonderfully imaginative book! Flora 717 is born into a beehive in an orchard, into the flora, the lowest cast in the hive. Soon she learns obedience and service are the by-words for this society. Next to her as she hatches, a new young bee whose wing is deformed is summarily dispatched by the fertility police. But Flora’s horror at this is forgotten as she is bathed in the scent of love that periodically emanates through the hive from the queen.
The beautifully realised world of the hive is a cross between a medieval court and a nunnery, everyone has their place and any deviation is not tolerated, and above all the queen is hidden behind a wall of her priestesses, called the Sister Sages.
Flora’s life would have been one of short, tedious service, if she hadn’t been born with special talents. She can talk, and the rest of her class can’t, plus she’s big and robust. Her qualities are noticed and she’s given the chance to perform different roles: as a nurse in the hatchery, as a forager bee seeking out nectar and pollen, and she even gets near the queen; but Flora harbours a terrible secret that if exposed would see her instantly executed.
Paull has written something like a fantasy adventure but all set within the confines of the hive. Her ability to make the life of the bees come alive with its beauty and terror is quite remarkable. The hive itself has hidden chambers and multilevels, and the various ways of communicating through scent, vibration, pheromones, the bee dance in the dance hall, are wonderfully evoked.
Flora 717 is a feisty, brave character and her friend amongst the drones (they lie around like dandies while the female bees feed and groom them and worship their maleness) Sir Linden, brings humour and poignancy.
Towards the end, as waves of misfortune hit the hive, the tension is ramped up, and Flora has to fight for her own life, and ultimately that of the hive.
There is nothing twee about this book; it is a thrilling adventure full of the pleasures of a strange world richly realised.