The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Vol II, The Kingdom of the Waves

Written by M.T. Anderson
Review by Eva Ulett

African-American youth Octavian escapes with his trusted tutor Doctor Trefusis from the eccentric Bostonian gentlemen who raised him as a comparative experiment between the European and African cultures. Octavian and the Doctor flee into British- controlled Boston at the start of the American Revolutionary conflict in 1775. A student of Greek, Latin, philosophy and an accomplished violinist, Octavian sustains himself and Doctor Trefusis by playing in the orchestra of one of the King’s regiments. In the pursuit of liberty, Octavian joins Virginia’s ousted Governor Lord Dunmore’s Royal Ethiopian Regiment, composed of runaway slaves and freedmen. Among these men, Octavian is called ‘Buckra’ for his ‘white’ manner of speaking and his education. A tale both of the coming of age and quest for liberty of this unique and noble black youth, and that of a conflicted new nation, Octavian Nothing, Volume II is a beautiful epic novel.

It is also an astonishing book filled with masterstrokes of language. Revolutionary America is stunningly depicted in Octavian’s firsthand account, letters and newspaper extracts (some actual contemporary documents), and diary entries. But this is not just a well-executed story; it’s also a novel that examines liberty in America and ‘The freedom —economic, social, and intellectual—enjoyed by the vocal and literate elite of the early Republic [that] would have been impossible if it had not been for the enslavement, displacement, and destruction of others’ (Author’s Note). The Kingdom of the Waves is marketed as a young adult novel, and if the novel gains a wide readership among young people—the book contains a great deal of fun and entertainment—then concerns about literacy among the young would appear to have little basis. Volume I of Octavian Nothing’s tale won several awards; Volume II richly deserves more such honors.