Monday, January 18, 2010

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Traitor to the Nation

Octavian is raised by a group of philosophers in the Novanglian College of Lucidity.  He is taught Latin and Greek and violin and the importance of scientific observation.  He excels in his studies and despite their vigor he grows up relatively happy in the company of his mother and his teachers.  Everything changes, however, with a loss of funding and the coming of the Revolutionary War.  Octavian learns hard truths that force him to see the lines drawn between black and white and re-examine his entire life.  You may think you know the story of Boston and the Revolutionary War, but before the end of the novel you'll be re-examining stories held as truth as well.

I hope the above summary is helpful to you because the one I received from the jacket of the book certainly was not.  The talk of princesses and forbidden doors made the novel sound like some sort of fantasy, and the cover looked vaguely steampunk with its metal mask.  Boston and the Revolutionary War weren't mentioned at all, which are a huge part of the story.  As a result I went into this novel expecting a fantasy and what I got was a historical fiction.  I think this is a huge disservice to the novel because while I have wide enough interests that I ended up enjoying it I would have been really ticked off if I was a pure fantasy enthusiast and I had picked this up based on its summary and if I was a historical fiction enthusiast I probably would have read the description and dismissed it.

To some extent I can see why it was written this way because this book also pulls the whole entirely change the tone and meaning of the novel halfway through crap that I discussed in the previous post and I suppose whoever wrote the summary didn't want to reveal important plot points, but I think to some extent it is necessary, especially because the change actually occurs about a third of the way through, meaning most of the book bears no resemblance to the jacket summary. 

Other than the whole switcheroo bit that bugged me and took some adjusting I enjoyed this book.  I love Octavian's voice and the book certainly does give you a lot to chew on and, as I mentioned above, make you re-examine the history of Boston and the Revolutionary War.  Taking a story that is so familiar and so close to the hearts of Americans and making them question it really does take talent and is a wonderful thing when done successfully.  I also enjoy the bits of ephemera peppered throughout.  The only thing that stopped me from being more enthusiastic in my recommendation of this book is that the change of tone really is difficult to swallow to the point that unless your interests are really varied you're unlikely to enjoy both halves.  I hear the next book in the series is better, however, probably because it's more uniform.  And I have to cut Anderson some slack because unlike Her Fearful Symmetry I can see why he had to change the book and I think it was necessary.  So in the end I'd recommend this book, though to the historical fiction crowd not the fantasy crowd.  I think it's definitely worth the read for the way it changes the reader's pre-conceived notions of the era.  Although for younger readers I caution that it is rather mature.  It's not gory or explicit but it deals with a lot of serious and disturbing issues of the time so I'd read it before giving it to your kid so you can judge whether or not they'll be able to handle it.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Traitor to the Nation, by M.T. Anderson ISBN: 0763624020

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