I recently had a discussion with a friend about non-humanoid protagonists in novels. Our conclusion was that it’s hard to do well (shocking, I know). I read Tailchaser’s Song by Tad Williams a while ago and thought it was great. It’s full of cats. Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton is another good one, and everyone in it is a dragon. Well, dragons are tricky because they are mythical creatures and have always been thought to have a peculiar mindset (though I suppose the same thing can be said about cats).
Almost every character in The Bees is, well, a honey bee. There are some spiders and wasps. There are a few humans, but only for a couple of pages. The novel begins with Flora, a worker bee and our protagonist, emerging from her cell. Flora is a humble sanitation worker, destined for the life of cleaning and service. But she is not like other bees. For one, she is not mute, like the rest of her worker kin. And so she catches an eye of one of Sage priestesses, who then allows her to step beyond her caste boundaries and work in the Nursery. Flora is both the strongest and weakest part of The Bees. She is that kickass female protagonist you want in your fiction: she rises above her humble origins, she defies authority, she ventures outside, and she performs feats not expected from a bee worker. Therein lies her weakness: she is not like other bees (‘You are unnatural’), but at the same time her otherness seems just a device to show the reader what’s going on in the hive. Of course she has to be ‘unnatural’ to be able to go everywhere and do different things. We have only one POV, and it’s Flora’s. There is something wrong and shady going on in the hive, but we can know only as much as Flora knows.
The single POV is not necessarily a problem. You don’t need an omniscient narrator to enjoy the mystery or whatever evil plot is hatching (ha!) in the hive. But The Bees also suffers from the problem of uneven tension. There are moments when things are really happening to advance the story arc, but for the most part the book can be described as ‘the year in the life of bees as seen from the point of view of one bee’. I had the same feeling about The Bees as I did about The Martian by Andy Weir: great thought experiment, not a great novel (though The Martian is ahead in points for story arc coherence). In this case, Paull’s imagination gets carried away with the need to describe yet another life stage of a bee in the form of a novel. Here’s what happens to drones before the winter. Here’s how we survive the winter. Here’s how we feed larvae. All this makes The Bees a rather clunky and disjointed read.
My biggest disappointment with The Bees, however, was that the story was completely predictable. I could have told you how it would end after reading the dust jacket. So the most I can say about this book is that it is imaginative (major props for trying to build a world based pretty much entirely on scent and taste), but not when it comes to actual storytelling.
By the way, if you really want to get into the head of a non-humanoid mind, read Vernor Vinge. His aliens are amazing. A Deepness in the Sky has spider-like aliens, and their POVs feel decidedly non-human.
Maybe I’m just partial to arachnids.