An astonishing book indeed. It's a pity that it has been labelled "Young Adult" when it would do a lot of full grown adults a lot of good. I decided t...moreAn astonishing book indeed. It's a pity that it has been labelled "Young Adult" when it would do a lot of full grown adults a lot of good. I decided to read it based on the interesting plot and protagonist. At the time, it seemed like a steampunk account of the Revolutionary War but as it turns out, there isn't much fantasy and whimsy here.
The protagonist, Octavian, is captivating but not the only one in a book filled with people of all shades - of skin colour as well as character. His upbringing is surreal but as the author states in the afterword, not as removed from historical fact as it appears to be. He depicts Octavian's strange, experimental life and his confrontation with the reality faced by people like him without sappy sentiment. I found Bono a particularly engaging character, his own awareness of the ugly reality and his moral ambiguity a foil to Octavian's initial naïveté. However, the other characters are equally striking, whether it's the inscrutable Cassiopeia, Mr. Gitney, caught between cowardice and curiosity or the rest from Evidence Goring to Lord Cheldthorpe to the various named and unnamed bit players whose diaries, letters and advertisements are part of the narrative.
Like I said, there is little whimsy here. This is no quaint period piece. The novel is as raw as the times it is set in. You know about the War from school and you took for granted that the revolutionaries were ethically superior to the British, even though you know that no one can be easily sliced into "good" and "bad". Anderson reminds you of that fact with no prettiness, whether he describes the brutal tarring and feathering of a royalist customs officer or the Redcoats shooting a child watching them march by. There is violence everywhere, whether in Bono's macabre scrapbook of torture devices designed for slaves or the horrors of the pox.
Anderson offers an unemotional and yet paradoxically moving look at slavery and its inevitable presence in the history of man - Grecian slaves who spoke of poetry and philosophy, Britons enslaved by Romans who would one day, in a new world, enslave Africans. Neither can slavery be put down simply to racism - Anderson also mentions "indentured Irishmen", only slightly better off than the Africans or Native Americans. He seems to want to prove that no man is above cruelty - the British oppress the colonists, the colonists oppress the slaves. The scene where Octavian's company, including the idealistic Evidence Goring, slaughters livestock is another subtle reminder that even those professing to be egalitarian are not completely innocent.
The language strays into parody at times, especially in the letters, but on the whole, I couldn't complain about it. There is a sort of brutal poetry in Anderson's language - "You must learn fear. I do this for your own sake. Fear is like happiness, but the smile is wider." Bono's words stayed with me long after I finished the book but his weren't the only ones. Dr. Trefusis' solipsistic musings -"All that is there now is the eye of God." He shivered. "The pupil is black, and as large as a world." and Octavian looking at slaves sent to war in place of their "patriotic" masters - "...they were like ranks of white men's deaths". Anderson excels in creating jewel-bright scenes, that are sometimes horrifying, sometimes touching, sometimes both, like Cassiopeia's quoting of the Psalms or her death, which he leaves dignified and free of mawkishness - "And then, this she offered to me, my one truth: “Our language,” she said, “is not spoken, but sung.... Not simply words... and grammar... but melody. It was hard... thus... to learn English... this language of wood. For the people of your nation, Octavian, all speech is song."
This book isn't perfect but it is an extremely admirable effort. Anderson does not try to hide the horror of the events he describes but the book doesn't fall prey to white guilt either. He writes without romanticism but this only makes the book's effect on the reader stronger. I am glad I read this book despite the misleading YA tag and I look forward to reading The Kingdom on the Waves.(less)