Friday, November 28, 2008

Octavian Nothing, volume 2

By M. T. Anderson. The full title is The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves.

As indicated, a review of the second volume.

My initial reaction is disappointment; the resolution of Octavian's childhood, and ending of the book, though open, is less optimistic than I hoped. In a book about slavery and freedom, war and death, however gilded in flights of philosophy, this is perhaps no more should be expected, but as a reader I prefer less dismal endings.

The theme is one of hypocrisy; the surface never matches what is underneath, even in Octavian's own case (to the reader's bitter surprise on his behalf, although his own emotion is better concealed). Both the British governors and the rebels speak of liberty to all, but care only for their own.

The historical detail continues to provide fascinating insight into the uncertainty of the rebellion and the British army's plight stranded months from home. I suspect this perspective will prove the most lasting element of the book in my memory; I did not often hear about American atrocities in high school history, except in the treatment of Native Americans. These revelations point to my own hypocrisy, which continues to trouble me.

I also admit to appreciating the spiritual matters touched on; Octavian is Christian to some extent, and even the atheist Dr. Trefusis's casual blasphemy near the end of his life tells of a serious concern for what may come after.

Overall, not a cheerful book, but neither is it frivolous: the attention to history cannot help but highlight questions about the present.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Octavian Nothing volume 1 redux

I have only finished rereading the first part of four in this volume, and already I am newly eager to discover what happens in the second volume.

The writing in this book is wonderful, and is reminding me of the difference a
strong voice can make in a story.

I believe I mentioned the first time the sense of the fantastic that is drawn out of natural events. Octavian opens:

I was raised in a gaunt house with a garden; my earliest recollections are of floating lights in the apple-trees. [...]

The men who raised me were lords of matter, and in the dim chambers I watched as they traced the spinning of bodies celestial in vast, iron courses, and bid sparks to dance upon their hands; they read the bodies of fish as if each dying trout or shad was a fresh Biblical Testament, the wet and twiching volume of a new-born Pentateuch. They burned holes in the air, wrote poems of love, sucked the venom from sores, painted landscapes of gloom, and made metal sing; they dissected fire like newts.

We go on to meet the larger-than-life characters of Octavian's childhood: his mother, whose royal dignity never falters despite her chains; his tutors, who sardonically comment on the times while doing little to change them; the passionless man who owns him, and Octavian, whose presence is always felt, even when off-stage.

On rereading it, I am also picking up more subtle threads: Octavian's mother cannot be as happy as she appears; does her hand betray delight, as Octavian takes it, or fear for her son, the chain by which she is bound?

I hope to have more to say after volume 2.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


By Kristin Cashore.

This is the first book I've really, really enjoyed in quite a while. The quotes on the back are all just about right, though I found it interesting that all the quotees were women.

Unlike the usual "girl dresses up as a boy and proves herself as a fighter" story (ahem) Katsa has no need to prove herself. She's unnaturally gifted—Graced— in the fighting arts. One of the things I like so much about this story is that her real struggle is to be able to control herself, her anger, and her pride, and that she realizes her need to do so.

The humor is also the way I like it, as she wrestles a mountain lion ("That thing could have killed me!") and considers the creature a gift.

What I disliked (and what perhaps reminded me of Fire Study, along with the incredibly gifted protagonist) were the vague but steamy love scenes. I kept looking at the "14 and up" on the back cover (well, only twice).

In the end—it was quite enjoyable and, despite the promise of further books on Cashore's blog, feels like a complete story by itself.