Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Astonishing Life fo Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Vol.1: The Pox Party

In my constant trickle of incoming books, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (etc.) landed on my shelf about 2 1/2 months ago.

I usually have about 15- 20 books hanging around in the to-be-read area of my extensive bookshelves, and what I read next is often based on whim. But at the Ad Astra panel I attended, Octavian Nothing was briefly alluded to as one of the few literary YA novels recently published (in the context of does literary YA sell? P.S.-yes, but rarely to publishers), and this suitably sparked my interest to make it next on my actual reading pile

The first thing I must say about this book is, it's not a light read. Dealing with slavery, antiquated science and the American civil war, all in the language of the time and with a very challenging vocabulary, it's more akin to ploughing through Shakespeare when you were 14 then your average casual read. Since the majority of the population managed Shakespeare, one way or another (Coles notes anyone?), I have faith that with the use of a dictionary, or Wikipedia, most readers can manage the language. The story may be another matter.

I alternated between fascinated and having to force my eyes open from boredom. It was a weird dichotomy but it seemed to stem from the two divergent (but not really) storylines in the book. The first is the one telling Octavians life and history, by stages you come to realise he is both black, and unbeknownst to him, a slave. His mother says she's a captured African princess and they are treated well, albeit oddly, in their home The Novanglian College of Lucidity, where they are more experiments then slaves. The second story line follows the American Civil War, which creeps gradually into the story until it is the primary aspect of it by the end. It was this part I found very dull, possibly because it was told almost entirely from a rotating point of view of others who aren't part of the original story. But also largely due to the fact that Octavian becomes a secondary character by this point, and since I was more interested in him and his experience than the actual civil war it meant I really lost interest in where the story was wandering off too.

All of this being said, at the very ending the story came back to Octavian and his plight as a black slave during the civil war and re-captured my interest. So I'll reserve my final judgment on that part of the story arc until I've read the second part to the series the Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Volume II: Kingdom of the Waves (maybe it was going somewhere after all? just to be continued??).

To date Volume one has won numerous awards; it is a one of kind book in many ways. It opened my eyes to some of the more shocking aspects of slavery and racism of the time, and in general I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about historical matters. The initial part of the story is written in a really intriguing way, where you're not sure what's really happening most of the time, and there are a lot of surprising reveals about both Octavian, his mother and the scientists who surround them. So, although I found the last 100 pages or so really dull, I do highly recommend the story as a whole. Who knows, maybe volume two will redeem the parts of part one I didn't enjoy?

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume I: The Pox Party, By M.T. Anderson
Published by Candlewick, September 2006


  1. Hey!
    Oh, I loved this book! I guess to really enjoy this book, you have to not mind slow paced reads. I didn't think it was boring, I loved the characters and all.

  2. It was just that small segway towards the end that I absolutely didn't enjoy. The pacing didn't bother me at all, but when Octavian stops being the narrator, and it becomes about the civil war and not his story I lost a lot of my interest. But! I did buy the next book, the end was an excellent cliff hanger and I'm interested to see where it goes. Have you read it yet? What did you think?

  3. I enjoyed the beginning of the story quite a bit, I was completely sucked in. But around where the book trails off into inkblots and the story switches to the newspaper clippings/letter from the soldier, it lost me. I really enjoyed Octavian's deep point of view, and the book never managed to recapture my interest after the sudden POV shift. In that way, I think our experience was quite similar.

    Have you read the next story yet? I'm a bit hesitant to pick it up.

    Just a quick point - the war he got involved with was actually the American Revolutionary War, not the Civil War.

    I've enjoyed your perspective, and I've linked to you here on my review!

  4. Thanks for the correction Lana, my american war knowledge is sadly lacking! I've tried, but boy it just rarely captures my interest.

    I haven't read the second part yet, but I did pick it up while I was in New York. I'll probably read it after a short break (canadian authors this month!). But I have to say the small twist right at the very end was what caught my interest again, so we'll see.
    Thanks for the link!