Empire Of The Ants is neither the best nor the worst book vying for the title of the next Watership Down, but it's certainly the one that strays furthest from the anthropomorphic for its anthropomorphized animal characters. Its protagonists are ants with names like "the 327th male laid since the start of autumn," and 327th is a russet ant with a serious problem: His entire beetle-hunting expedition was wiped out instantaneously by unknown forces, possibly a horrible new weapon developed by pesky dwarf ants. But his most frantic scent-based communications can't convince the other "cells" of his ant-city that the problem is real. Pursued by aggressive, unscented ants in defiance of all hive logic, 327th sets out on a Chicken Little-like quest to find someone to hear—or in this case, smell—his story. Bernard Werber, a French "scientific journalist" with 15 years of ant studies to his credit, seems far more interested in descriptions of trophallaxis and neuromediator communication than his own plotline. His human characters—members of a Parisian family that has, of all clichés, inherited a house-with-a-dangerous-secret from an eccentric uncle—are irritatingly two-dimensional exposition tools who spend their spare time watching Discovery Channel-type documentaries so Werber can expound on non-ant-related vagaries of nature. The ants are better developed, but still seem like transparent tools for an extended entomological lecture intended only to entertain an audience without the scientific erudition needed to question his suppositions. On that limited level, Empire does succeed. It's more like a "Make Science Fun!"-style children's novel than a piece of great literature, but it does get across the basic point of what it might be like to be an insect in an insect-sized world.

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