So of course I'd heard of Octavian Nothing. But it was just one of those books (two volumes, actually, but really one book, in my mind) that I'd never gotten around to reading. But I've been catching up on John Green's archives after going crazy for his Looking for Alaska, and I took what he wrote about it to heart, and I checked out both volumes to take with me over Thanksgiving. Many hours in airplanes and the backs of cars and some 900 pages later, I am done.
It is hard to know where to begin when talking about Octavian Nothing. I guess the first thing I'd like to say is that the less you read about it in advance, the better. (I won't be giving away anything here, not even the most basic summary.) I've started to avoid reviews and even book jacket blurbs of books before reading them. I can't tell you how much it's enriched my reading experiences lately. Even a one-line summary often gives away too much.
So ... Octavian Nothing. It carried me away. It just took me out of my body and mind and placed me squarely on Octavian's journey with him. It was a sucker punch to my gut and my heart. People would ask me what the book was about, from family members around the fireplace to strangers standing nearby at baggage claim, and I felt at a loss. The first volume takes its sweet time in letting the story unfold, and before I was really sure what was going on, I said, "I'm not really sure. But it feels -- sinister." And it did feel sinister, a lot of the time. It felt shocking and horrifying and terrifying and sad. But it also felt hopeful and moving and ultimately profound. This book is profound. It just -- is.
It's not only a thoroughly engrossing and gripping and epic story with characters who spring to life with an insane degree of vividness, it's a book about ideas. About science and faith. About the nature of humanity. About good and evil. About revolution. About freedom. I don't even know how to explain it. I will never be able to do it justice. This book just crushed me, and it took my breath away. I don't say that lightly.
It also made me laugh out loud sometimes, even though you'd never describe it as "funny." But there is humor -- not often, certainly, but every now and then, and lightness. There has to be, otherwise you might pull the covers over your head while reading and never come out again.
But you see -- that's the thing. You will come out, because you will want to keep reading. You probably won't be able to put this book down. It's not a page turner in the sense that the words fly by you -- the words are hard, and strange, and there's a rhythm/syntax to them that feels unfamiliar and takes some getting used to when you first start reading. (At least it did for me.) But it definitely became a page turner for me -- at first just so I could figure out what in the hell was going on, and ultimately so I could find out what would be Octavian's fate. And everyone else's in the story that I soon fell in love with. (Or hated passionately.)
Volume two definitely moves at a faster clip than volume one, but just be patient. It is all worth the wait. God, this book -- what a book. I found myself wondering time and again how this book was ever marketed for teens. Obviously it has been, and successfully -- bestseller, multiple prestigious awards, and so forth. The author himself has said he intended it for older teens, and I definitely think that's the perfect audience for this book. It's dark and frightening and violent, but it's also totally a coming of age story -- and it is, at its heart, so much about the questions older teens sometimes ask themselves as they find their ways in the world:
- What does it mean to be brave?
- What does it mean to be free?
- What are my special gifts?
- How will I ever become my own person?
- Why are we here?
- Does God exist?
- Does good exist?
- How can human beings treat other human beings like this?
- How will I survive this loss?
- Is war the answer?
- What is the value of a single life?
I also ask myself if I would have picked it up and read it as a teen. I think I might have, but I think it would have only been at someone's urging. The urging that we hear that so often rocks our worlds: "Read this book. Don't give up, even if it's tough at first. You will love it. It will change you." I guess that's what I'm trying to say right now.