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by Jessica Moll & r & & r & Fledgling by Octavia Butler & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & A & lt;/span & s someone who's preoccupied -- I hesitate to say obsessed -- with food, I love Octavia Butler because she always makes sure her characters eat. Whether she's describing a euphoric delicacy, such as a sterile Tlic egg in the science-fiction story "Bloodchild," or a tasteless staple, like the black slaves' corn meal mush in the historical/science-fiction novel Kindred, Butler is a master at exploring the pleasures -- and problems -- of appetite.


Butler's latest novel, sadly, will be her last: She died on Feb. 25. Fledgling is narrated by Shori, a genetically modified Ina (what we humans would call a vampire) who at age 53 is still a kid -- she has the body of a preadolescent black girl. Even though Ina live for thousands of years on human blood alone, Shori assiduously notes her human companions' food intake, from roast beef sandwiches to German chocolate cake.


Of course, it's credible that Shori would take an interest in human consumption. Her survival depends on her five human symbionts -- they form a sort of polyamorous family of men and women who take turns sleeping with her and gratifying her appetite not only for blood but companionship and sex. Her venom, in turn, is nourishing to humans; it prolongs their life spans and becomes addictive. When things get tough, the humans resent needing Shori so damn much.


Although I love knowing what's on the menu at the symbionts' picnic, midway through the novel I find myself questioning Shori's knowledge of human ritual, and wondering if she isn't more human than Ina. Shori has amnesia -- the story opens right after the destruction of her village has left her with severe head injuries -- and as she searches for her family's killers, she relearns her own customs from other Ina she meets along the way. This device works for a while -- we get to learn about Ina along with Shori, and, it seems, along with Butler herself. But after a while, the backstory gets cumbersome, and I miss the sureness of Butler's earlier work, in which the reader is trusted with a larger role in piecing together the puzzle.


Still, Butler's keen prose is intact, and there's something comforting about this familiar, brilliant voice. Maybe that's why I'm still incredulous that she just died of a stroke at age 58. Since 1976, she'd been publishing novels involving time-travel (Kindred) and racial/sexual ambiguity (the Xenogenesis trilogy). Sustained by her readers' need for more of her delicious, penetrating stories, didn't she intend to live for a few thousand more years?

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