Shortcut #41: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (Part 1)

is a really long title.  And it goes on (though not much) with Volume 1: The Pox Party.  Reminds me of my as-yet-fictitious tale The High School of the Damned: A History, as told to Randy Carter, Self-Appointed Historian of the Ninth Grade.  In fact, it makes me want to extend the title even further, perhaps to cover the entire title page – though, undoubtedly, the title would be reduced to That Damned School or some other such ineloquent nonsense.

Ah, publishing companies, will you never learn!

But enough railing.  Let’s… um, unrail.

Shortcut #41: M. T. Anderson’s The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume 1: The Pox Party

Octavian Nothing

It was only a few days ago that I was talking about one of the other books I picked up during my YA book-buying binge, Scott Westerfeld’s Behemoth, and comparing this book with that one, throwing out one comment after another without evidential facts and though I made it seem like I vastly preferred one book over the other, I am here to witness to you today that my preferment was not so vast.

As stated in the last shortcut, I really enjoy Westerfeld’s Leviathan Trilogy.  What troubles me about his books is that, as a writer, I feel like I would be bored writing them.  Not because of the plot, or characterization, or any of the story elements, but because the way the story is told, on a sentence level, is rather straightforward.

As said before, Westerfeld is also writing for a slightly younger age group (12 and up rather than 14 and up), and so that might weigh heavily in his writing style.  I know that, if that’s the case, I feel it unlikely I’ll ever be writing a novel for the 12+ group because I need to keep myself interested in my writing as writing as I write.

That being said, I have to say that I read Behemoth in less than a day and it took me almost a month to read Octavian Nothing.

The story is intriguing and gripping: Octavian is the son of an African princess who was sold as a slave by a spurned suitor.  He and his mother are bought by the College of Lucidity, a group of privately-funded rational philosophers who are trying to determine if there is basis for discrimination between races.  He is given an exacting classical education, ends up taking part in the earliest battles of the Revolution, and ends up, at the book’s end, traveling to Boston to flee his legal owners.

Anderson tells the story in very short fragments, the smallest chapters being paragraphs while the longest aren’t much more than eight pages, all interspersed with articles and letters that give alternate views on the world and Octavian’s life.

This is very much a philosophical novel.  Octavian is trained from his earliest moments to observe rather than react, and to keep his emotions, as much as possible, separate from the life he sees around him.  Whereas Deryn and Alek in The Leviathan Trilogy are the foci, the sparks that set all actions aflame, Octavian is a roving eye, giving us a glimpse into the world of Revolutionary America and leading us to conclusions about how one should behave in life through what he sees, and what he comes to understand about what he sees.

Today, I’m going out to buy the second volume of Octavian Nothing.  I don’t know if it is because there was more action later in the book, or if it simply took me a while to warm up to Anderson’s storytelling, but the latter half of the novel carried me forward irresistibly.  The front half of the book, on the other hand, is all mystery, mostly scene-setting, and it was easy for me to put down even though the writing is beautiful – in fact, maybe that’s why it was easier to put down.  Such literary beauty invites contemplation from me, a certain slowness, rather than a rip-roaring pace that, likely, will mean I’ll skip over phrases, images, sentences even, in order to keep pace with the movie in my head.

Ah, the risks of being an artiste.

Sidenote 1: I wonder if that’ll be the fate of THE DREAM THIEF (assuming it reaches publication) since it’s as much a work of image and storytelling as it is plot.

Sidenote 2: Reading both Octavian Nothing and (currently) The Monstrumologist I’m realizing how dark, gritty, and (ironically) adult Young Adult novels can be.  Which makes me feel more hopeful of success for my own, since they will probably all be dark and gritty.  Truth be told, I could just give them a bath.

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One Response to Shortcut #41: The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation (Part 1)

  1. Brendan says:

    Jenny really liked the Monstrumologist. I have nothing else to add about that.

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