John Servilio, June 17, 2011 (view all comments by John Servilio)
I know Octavian Nothing is classified as an historical novel for "young readers," but never while I was reading this book did this cross my mind. Despite the main character's age, the language and story are quite "adult." Beautifully written, excellent plotting and characterization, wonderful narrative. I highly recommend this!
funchum, September 3, 2009 (view all comments by funchum)
Even if I had known or remembered that this was by the author of Feed - which I liked quite a bit - it would not have done much to prepare me for this one. I was actually startled by how good this is. It is very encouraging to think that there are teens out there reading such a beautifully-written, sophisticated book. Have faith. Recommended for ages 14 and up, including adults.
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Shoshana, December 25, 2008 (view all comments by Shoshana)
Good enough that I may replace my paperback with a hardbound copy. Classified as young adult fiction (perhaps only because of its young adult protagonist) this first volume of Octavian Nothing reads a bit like Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, only interesting, coherent, and with a discernible plot and character empathy. In addition to the action, set in the early U.S. Revolutionary War period, the major thematic material concerns Octavian's identity. He is simultaneously royalty and slave, collaborator and experimental subject, learned and naive. Volume two may (as the subtitle of this volume suggests) explore Patriot vs. Loyalist. Octavian Nothing raises many questions about whether ends justify means, about struggles for liberty (liberty for whom?), and the virtues and limits of empirical knowledge.
Some reviewers have complained that the language is too mannered and stylistic, but I found it atmospheric rather than detracting. It adds to the historical flavor, and also serves to demonstrate Octavian's rarified upbringing and separation from the general community. The text is suffused with a dry wit and symbolic events that satirize aspects of the plot and characters' struggles and aspirations. Some of these are recognized by some characters; others are not. The mannered tone, arch at times, provides linguistiic containment for otherwise horrific content. Anderson manages this balance quite elegantly. This meticulousness of form and language extends to the book's typesetting in Casalon, a font popular in the American colonial period.
Of note is a self-referential joke on page 203 in the paperback edition. Dr. Trefusis muses, "When I peer into the reaches of the most distant futurity, I fear that even in some unseen epoch when there are colonies even upon the moon itself, there shall still be gatherings like this, where the young, blinded by privilege, shall dance and giggle and compare their poxy lesions." This, of course, is the initial action in Anderson's previous novel Feed.
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This is an astonishingly imagined and well-researched book. Octavian Nothing's life is chronicled in the style of a slave narrative, but at times reads like a futuristic nightmare. Though living in apparent luxury, Octavian and his mother are slaves to an experiment by a group of rational philosophers in pre-revolutionary Boston. The craven nature of this relationship is both shocking to read and clearly metaphorical. While examining notions of freedom, scientific ethics, and rationality, as well as national- and self-delusion, this haunting book will stay with you for months to come.
by Lori M.
by The Horn Book,
"A brilliantly complex interrogation of our basic American assumptions. Anderson has created an alternative narrative of our national mythology, one that fascinates, appalls, condemns — and enthralls."
by Booklist (Starred Review),
"The story's scope is immense, in both its technical challenges and underlying intellectual and moral questions....Readers will marvel at Anderson's ability to maintain this high-wire act of elegant, archaic language and shifting voices."
Presented in eighteenth century-style prose, this unique historical novel opens in a dreamlike setting and then moves progressively to stark realism.
Various diaries, letters, and other manuscripts chronicle the experiences of Octavian, a young African American, from birth to age 16, as he is brought up as part of a science experiment in the years leading up to and during the Revolutionary War.
Now in paperback, this deeply provocative novel reimagines the past as an eerie place that has startling resonance for readers today.
Young Octavian is being raised by a group of rational philosophers known only by numbers — but it is only after he opens a forbidden door that learns the hideous nature of their experiments, and his own chilling role them. Set in Revolutionary Boston, M. T. Andersons mesmerizing novel takes place at a time when Patriots battled to win liberty while African slaves were entreated to risk their lives for a freedom they would never claim. The first of two parts, this deeply provocative novel reimagines past as an eerie place that has startling resonance for readers today.
"Andersons imaginative and highly intelligent exploration of . . . the ambiguous history of Americas origins will leave readers impatient for the sequel." — THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
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