Melody's Reviews > The Kingdom on the Waves

The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson
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May 05, 2009

it was amazing
bookshelves: novels, juvenile-fiction
Recommended for: people interested in language, history, and the power of narrative
Read in April, 2009

When I read the first volume of the Octavian Nothing series, I knew I'd read something extraordinary, but I didn't know what to do with it, and so I only mildly enjoyed it (as you'll notice from my rating). However, in the intervening years, Octavian's story, and M.T. Anderson's masterful use of narrative, language, and historical theory, got under my skin, and it became the contemporary book I used as a touchstone for excellence in fiction writing (not just Juvenile fiction writing) perhaps more than any other.

So when the New York Times Review of Books announced the sequel, Vol. II The Kingdom on the Waves, I was thrilled. Though it's been out for several months, I've finally had the time to devote to the work, the first book I've been excited about in more than a year. And it did not disappoint.

Early in the novel, Octavian sets the stage for the themes of the book when, in the midst of an interrupted theatrical production he notes that "An anxiety at what was real and what was display beset us." He has discovered that the life he lived in the Novanglian College of Lucidity was not real, but now, he must set about the more difficult task of defining himself. When Octavian enlists with Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, he expects freedom. However only after seeing his friends sacrificed in battle, after seeing the chaotic order of the rebels and the ordered chaos of the Loyalists, does he learn understand himself as not a traitor to, but an emblem of the Nation itself: always in conflict, always in a state of flux.

In his closing reflections on the nature of history, Anderson explores the complexity and myriad options that faced slaves during the Revolutionary War: "The decision to emancipate or leave them in bondage," he notes of both sides of the conflict, "was not based on abstract principles, but on strategic interests." Octavian's story gives Anderson the opportunity to explore the troubling uses of the word "Liberty" in Colonial America. Octavian himself is fond of noting that those who cry loudest for freedom from tyranny are the sniveling slave masters, and no one, not even General George Washington, escapes his damning critiques.

Octavian's search for dignity and humanity forces Christian readers to ask serious questions about the idea that we were founded as a "Christian" nation, and pushes all readers to think about the ways that we have constructed the story of our Nation in what we hope will be our own image. This is only a part of reality, Anderson suggests. On the other hand, Octavian knows "How awful it is to contemplate the accidents that determine one's fate." He poignantly notes that "History is not a pageant arrayed for our delectation. We are all always gathered there. ... We ourselves are history. The moment, is always now."

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