I always like to look up books on GoodReads and see what other people thought, and I came across this (I thought) brilliant analysis of Fledgling.
Reviewer Nick Imrie said:
We do get to see a little of the Ina relationship with their human symbionts. This is quite a clever take on vampires. Of course, why would vampires go around killing people instead of keeping them alive and feeding from them little but often. It’s so much more rational. About half-way through the book, I suddenly realised that the relationship between humans and their Ina was like classical patriarchy, with the Ina playing the role of the patriarch.
The Ina is the head of the family, like the patriarch. The humans are like wives, who all belong to the Ina’s household and live together in a community. The Ina also ‘graze’ on other humans who they don’t take any responsibility for, like patriarchs reserving the right to use whores. The only humans Ina cannot use are the ones that belong to another Ina, the same way that patriarchy includes respect for the rights of other patriarchs. Meanwhile, the humans can only be fed upon by their own Ina; it’s terribly painful when a different Ina feeds on them. Just like in a patriarchy, the wives/humans are terribly punished for straying, while the patriarch/Ina can stray freely. The relationship is somewhat co-dependent. The Ina needs a harem to survive, just as patriarch needs a family to be a patriarch. The humans gain advantages from the deal: pleasure in being used, long life and health, just as in a patriarchy women gain access to resources and status through husbands. The humans all give a great deal: not just their blood, but total obedience to their Ina (literally, the venom makes them compliant), and among some Ina humans are viewed as inferior beings.
The parallels seemed pretty obvious to me, but the book doesn’t really engage with them on a deep level. Shori, like a good Ina, wants to treat her humans well. She wants them to be happy. She wants them to want to stay with her.
She doesn’t want them to be free.
Shori, once she finds out how Ina society functions, decides to operate under the rules rather than question them. Although Shori obviously has a lack of privilege, shown by the way the Silks react to her skin color and her age, she also is in a position of privilege because she has so much power over her symbionts. They could die without her. Shori knows this, and we see through the text how passionately Shori cares for her symbionts and how careful she is to give them autonomy and agency. However, this doesn’t change the fact that Shori and her symbionts are still part of the system the Ina set up, and Shori could, if she wanted to, revoke that autonomy at any time. This is similar to how women wouldn’t be able to chose their own husbands, and whether their husband would be kind to them or abuse them was down to chance. Shori’s symbionts are lucky that they are bound to an Ina who actually cares about them, rather than one who would treat them like dirt like the Silks. Shori’s fair treatment of them doesn’t mean the system they operate under isn’t unfair. Remember, Shori tells Wright he could be honest with other Ina to prevent him from being harmed, but this is still an order that Wright has to obey. Of course, this doesn’t mean that Shori is a bad person or that her actions are wrong.
This is a tension that has existed in the other works by Butler we have read, and it all boils down to consent. Eli treats Kiera kindly, though Kiera is also participating in a system she did not choose, and it’s the same with Gan and T’Gatoi. Butler, rather than giving us an answer, seems to want us to work through this tension ourselves.
PS—Here is the rest of the review. A warning, though; this reviewer really did not like Fledgling!