The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Volume 1

“At long last, you may no longer distinguish what binds you from what is you.”

Upon seeing the title: the Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, and having a small inkling of the book being set in colonial times, my mind leapt to the ridiculous plots that are often scoured through the pages of the young adult section: Caesar Octavian runs into Bill & Ted in the midst of their excellent adventure and travels forward in time to colonial America? False. However, the book really was an unexpected treat.

Octavian Nothing is a wild story about a mild mannered African boy, owned by a man named Josiah Gitney, a philosopher instructor of the Novanglian College of Lucidity. The college is headquarters to all sorts of pseudo-scientific experiments (I know you’re still on the thread of Young Adult fiction here, so what’s probably going through your mind is like a colonial version of Bill Nye the science guy where Bill wears wigs and heels…sorry) such as Octavian weighing his excrement, and comparing it with his consumption of food; all aimed at unearthing the differences between blacks and whites.  Octavian and his mother, despite being in this horrific environment, are actually treated very well. But why?

Early on in the book the reader is introduced to a mysterious door (in classic Narnian fashion) that Octavian is strictly forbidden access to, but his curiosity soon gets the better of him (just like all young boys). Octavian’s ignorance of his petrifying situation soon melts away as the secrets behind the door are revealed… he begins to understand that he is indeed a slave and is possibly at the hands of a corrupt organization that has dressed him in silks, and has given him a classical education to serve a very specific agenda. The tale is grounded in this spectacular revelation, and how young Octavian not only deals with it emotionally, but also upon his choices that are birthed from the pain of his enslavement, and the cruelty of the bizarre experiments.

M.T. Anderson’s dense writing in this novel gives you the sensation of chewing a savory steak dinner. His voice and diction are beyond rich and complex, while effectively giving the reader the feeling of being enveloped in the thick of 1770’s America. After reading the book, I’m still confused at why it is classified as young adult fiction. The vocabulary is advanced and there are dark scenes throughout the novel peppered with 3 instances of completely unneeded sexuality. However, Octavian Nothing would be a powerful novel for young adults to read because it breeds an absolute hatred for the institution of slavery. And even though Octavian Nothing is not about a Roman Emperor traveling through time with two high school slackers, its powerful commentary on injustice, slavery, and nationalism was a worth-while read for me and I believe for readers of a younger generation.

The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing is an intriguing read, but a little bit difficult to struggle through at times. However, hang in there, the last 50 pages made M.T. Anderson’s first crack at historical fiction a beautiful masterpiece… the beginning of a story that I will undoubtedly finish in its sequel.

4th shelf out of 5.


‘The Book of Three’ by Lloyd Alexander

“Most of us are called on to perform tasks far beyond what we can do. Our capabilities seldom

match our aspirations, and we are often woefully unprepared. To this extent, we are all Assistant Pig-Keepers at heart.”

I was at Half Price Books awhile back, a usual hangout for me when I have some time to kill, and I was browsing through the young adult fiction section. As I was glancing around I saw a book, cover facing outward, with a Newbery medal. And for some reason, whenever there is a big golden or silver medallion on a book my brain programs it as: “This one has to be awesome.” Unfortunately for me it was book 5 in a series of 5. Now, enter the dilemma of all readers of young adult fiction: do I really want to start a new series when I am in the thick of about 50 other series that I already enjoy? Let’s be real here, the reason the collection is up to 50 is because we can’t say no to a good (kids) book. So I grabbed the 1st in the series of Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain,’ called ‘The Book of Three.’

The book follows an assistant pig keeper (that’s right, an assistant pig keeper) Taran, in the mythical land of Prydain (which bears an incredible resemblance to Wales). Taran is frustrated in carrying out the menial tasks of an assistant pig keeper in Caer Dallben, and longs to be an adventurer like Prince Gwydion. When his oracular pig, Hen Wen, escapes, Taran must chase after her outside the safety of his own home. His quest to find her becomes a wild adventure with classic elements of fairy tales and fantasies that lovers of Narnia, Middle Earth, and Hogwartz will all enjoy. It is a fun and funny coming-of-age tale that satisfies the reader, while creating a sense of excitement to tear through the next installment.

While reading the book I had to set aside my frustrations with similar themes I was finding in Prydain with Tolkein and other works of fantasy literature. But after doing a little research, it was clear that Alexander wrote the Prydain Chronicles in an effort to retell Welsh mythology. And while he does utilize elements from other writers, (most notably a character that could literally be replaced with Gollum) his enchanting book is a gripping collage of what fantasy readers love best.

The Book of Three, written for a younger audience, is packed with intriguing lessons that children and adults alike can benefit from. Told with a magnificent sense of humor intertwined with powerful prose, there is a constant thread throughout the book of how true heroism is not something that can only be accomplished by a king, a bard, or an adventurer, but can be found in the most unlikeliest of places: like an assistant pig keeper. This quote comes from a moment when Taran attempts to sound heroic and noble while talking to Eilonwy, one of his partners on the quest, as they flee a wicked queen and her crumbling palace:

‘Spiral Castle has brought me only grief; I have no wish to see it again.’ ‘What has it brought the rest of us?’ Eilonwy asked. ‘You make it sound as though we were just sitting around having a splendid time while you moan and take on.’

Alexander often has sharp retorts for conventional ‘heroism’ or nobility in a way that makes the reader understand that they are capable of great things even if they aren’t a king. And even if they’re an average man browsing the young adult fiction section in a second hand bookstore.

4 out of 5. I’m excited to read the second book.