Octavian Nothing: Traitor To The Nation – Volume 1: The Pox Party by M.T. Anderson
Raised by a mysterious group of rational philosophers, young Octavian is dressed in all silks and given the finest of classical educations. His regal mother entertains the scholars with her beauty and wit, but Octavian questions the purpose behind his guardians’ fanatical studies. As the disquiet of Revolutionary Boston grows around him Octavian dares to open a forbidden door, only to discover the hideous nature of the experiments – and his own chilling role in them.
Genre: Children’s / YA
My rating: ★
I think what’s astonishing about this novel is what Americans forgot or didn’t learn in school about the formation of their country. For a smug Canadian who isn’t surprised by anything bad coming out of America at any time, it’s less astonishing and more profoundly boring.
Octavian’s life might be astonishing, but his story is not. Anderson tells us that Octavian has an astonishing life, but he doesn’t show us. Octavian himself doesn’t even know his life is any different than other people’s, other boys’, other blacks. Even when he figures it out – when he finds out that he’s actually a slave and not the beloved prince of a household, and suddenly made to act accordingly – nothing really changes in his demeanor, he seems quite unastonished actually.
There is a barrier between us and what might be good about this novel. There could be something astonishing here, but it’s hidden under other people’s letters driving the plot instead of the main character’s actions; in breakneck plot changes that don’t seem to bother the characters too much; and behind mysterious forbidden doors that, once opened, just result in a dry lecture by a man who changed his name to a number for very little reason and later changed it back just the same.
When you have to call your story “astonishing” in the title, it’s very likely not to be so.
“I should not be sorry, should the Lord sweep the savages further to the west; but I doubt His divine will shall ever be expressed through Virginians.
“And then they imprisoned me in darkness; and though there was no color there, I still was black, and they still were white; and for that, they bound and gagged me.
“The Latin for “slave” – servus – as rendered in English literally is “the spared one”; slaves being those taken prisoner in battle, who should, therefore, by all rules of engagement, have been slain. In antiquity, slaves possessed no rights as citizens because, though spared, they were accounted dead, and as the dead, could not be admitted as living men; and so, for generations, the dead toiled and bred in Rome; the dead taught Rome’s children the secrets of philosophy; the dead built Rome’s great monuments and tombs; until the Romans themselves joined the dead, and all that remained were tombs, and monuments, and half-remembered graves.