For better or worse, Kindred author Octavia Butler draws as much attention for her status as one of very few African-American science-fiction writers as she does for the writing itself. Sometimes that focus on skin color seems reductive; her elegant, compulsively readable novels deserve to stand on their own. But a colorblind approach wouldn't do proper credit to Butler's daring metaphorical explorations of racism and racial tensions. Her stories invariably center on exceptional individuals facing extreme challenges, in which racial politics often play a factor—her characters deal with aliens, psychic dynasties, or involuntary time-travel, but on some level, their struggles almost always come down to an oppressive but inescapable relationship with a culture, individual, or situation that wants to deny them rights, freedom, or self-rule.
Fledgling, Butler's first novel in seven years, is no exception. Its protagonist, an apparently young girl named Shori, opens the book by waking up ravenous, wounded, and amnesic in a forest cave. As she recovers, she gradually learns what she is—the newest scion of an ancient, civilized race of vampire-like beings—and what she's up against. As the first black member of her species, genetically engineered for melanin-based near-immunity to sunlight, she has inhuman abilities surpassing the norm for her people. But she's also the target of loathing from shadowy figures who may resent her for her skin color, her unique powers, her species, or her origins, among other issues. Whatever their reasons, their first attack nearly killed her, and they're clearly trying to finish the job.
Much of the book is about her voyage of self-discovery. Butler lays everything out in unusually dry, matter-of-fact prose that makes Shori's mysterious origins and struggle for survival seem bland; even the most ardent characters are often coldly distant, and Shori herself approaches thorny issues with dispassionate analysis. But Fledgling excels where Butler's strengths normally lie: in the establishment of complicated, chilling relationships where power and submission are crucially tangled topics, and the line between voluntary servitude and slavery is murky and dangerous. Most modern vampire fiction has a sexual frisson and an air of dominance politics, and Butler channels both elements into a plot that challenges conventional takes on age, gender, and race. While deconstructing and recreating vampire myths to forge something fresh, she neatly slots her take on the genre into her history of novels about power dynamics. Her sex scenes are as frank, stark, and brief as the rest of the novel, but they're also secondary to the emotional ties that bind dissimilar people together, both against their will and otherwise. Her prose style is simple. Nothing else in Fledgling is.