I first heard about Octavian Nothing fromribinder , who just mentioned that she'd been reading an incredible manuscript. One of the priveledges of living a few doors down from Matt Cheney is having access to awesome ARCs, and lo and behold back in August, he had a copy. I read it in a day. Maybe two. Sunk into it for hours, cried several times, felt my heart beat when I realized I was reading a book that did something incredible.
I've been unsure how to blog about the book, because the slow reveal of the book's key issue is so powerful, and a key part of the reading experience. This is not another book about the Revolutionary War that makes you feel good and smart but strangely whitewashed. And I do mean whitewashed. Octavian deals with race and slavery in subtle and human ways, which is a much-needed breath of fresh air. So many books about slavery tend to hone in on the most extreme examples, the evil plantation with the evil overseer and the good, virtuous slaves. Those books can be powerful, but they dominate the conversation, and they're also the least painful way for contemporary white America to engage in the subject. They offer the easy reading of, "boy, evil people used to whip nice people! They were terrible! I would NEVER whip ANYONE! Our hands are totally clean!" In a society where whites seem to be under the impression that racism isn't that big a problem anymore, that emphasis on racism = extremes doesn't do anyone any good.
In Octavian, cruelty is embroidered with kindness, brutality is mysterious, great beauty comes out of evil intentions. This is true both in the way the book deals with slavery (slavery in Boston, too, bastion of freedom), and in its depiction of the lead-in to the Revolutionary War. Moreover, the characters are written with incredible empathy and insight. Part of the book focuses on a New Hampshire farmer, young and full of love for New England, who fights in the first battles of the war around Boston to protect snow and his farm and maple syrup and forests -- the land that he loves. He is full of passion and fear, and his descriptions of battle are genuine and vivid. The main character, Octavian, is brilliant and nieve and tough, and the villains are uncomfortably human. And the language! The writing! It's funny! Jesus christ, just go read this book. Then blog about it. Get the word out.