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In this vampire tale, there's a lot to drink in

Fledgling, By Octavia E. Butler, Seven Stories, 317 pp., $24.95

Octavia E. Butler, the first successful female African-American science-fiction writer and a winner of a MacArthur Foundation ''genius" grant, is skilled at persuading her readers to reconsider social norms while immersing them in the alternate reality she's created. The settings are usually familiar (Los Angeles a few years from now, for example), and her main characters seem fairly ordinary -- at least, at first. Bit by bit, she reveals the unusual -- an extraterrestrial parasite searching for hosts, an evolutionary freak of nature that can morph from human to animal, a woman who can slip through time -- and, by then, the reader is hooked.

''Fledgling" is Butler's 12th novel and her first in seven years. This time, her otherworldly creature of choice is the vampire. But these are not the bloodthirsty, Gothic immortals of Bram Stoker's or Anne Rice's imaginations. Butler's vampires -- the Ina -- are an ancient, predominantly peace-loving, goddess-worshiping, long-lived but mortal race. They require human blood to survive, of course, but humans are not their prey per se; they're their dependents, willing volunteers who live, seven or eight at a time, with each Ina. Addicted to a compound in the Ina's venom, the humans (called ''symbionts," or ''syms") enjoy good health and a longer-than-normal life span in exchange for their blood and companionship. ''We protect and feed you, and you protect and feed us," a symbiont explains. Feedings are supposed to be an intensely pleasurable experience for humans and Ina alike.

''He was delicious," one Ina says of her new symbiont after biting his wrist. ''I had intended only to taste him and get a little of my venom into him, but he was such a treat that I took a little more than a taste."

''Fledgling" opens with a vivid first-person account of a young girl who has been beaten, burned, and left for dead, the sole survivor of a horrible hate crime. Her memory is completely wiped out; when she stumbles across the ruined remains of a small community, she recognizes what once were houses but can't remember what houses are or who lived in them. But her astounding ability to heal physically is our first clue that the girl isn't quite ''normal."

As the girl rediscovers herself and the world around her, we discover that, while she may look like a skinny preteen, she is actually a 53-year-old vampire-human hybrid -- the first of her kind. And her real name is Shori.

''All of my life had been erased, and I could not bring it back," Shori muses after learning her name and those of her family members. None sounded familiar to her. ''Each time I was confronted with the reality of this, it was like turning to go into what should have been a familiar, welcoming place and finding absolutely nothing, emptiness, space."

Like most of Butler's protagonists, Shori is black -- the melanin in her skin is what allows her to withstand daylight. And, as in Butler's other novels, the characters deal with questions about racism and the viciousness it brings out in American society. But in ''Fledgling," racism isn't simply a black-and-white issue. Human perception of Shori isn't the problem; some of the Ina, disgusted by the genetic experimentation of Shori's kinsmen and paranoid about what they consider the degradation of their bloodlines, are the ones who take issue with her.

Butler goes on to explore ideas of community, justice, and race with a nod to the preternatural. Her writing is vivid and tense, and she manages to make even a drawn-out Ina judicial council seem complex and intriguing. The book is laced with emotionally and erotically charged encounters, some of which are disturbing, even after one remembers that Shori isn't actually a child.

Butler also challenges conventional ideas about relationships and responsibility, and introduces new ones about morality and justice. It's a fascinating read, uncomfortable, horrifying, and ugly at times, but always compelling.

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