Category Archives: Historical Fiction

“The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing: Volume 1 The Pox Party” by M. T. Anderson

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Octavian is a slave in Boston on the eve of the Revolutionary War.  His mother claims to be an African princess (I wonder if that is really true though…) and, while still pregnant, is bought by the “Novanglian College of Lucidity” (Novanglia = New England), a philosophical society of the times.  The gentlemen get the idea for a grand experiment to test the African capacity for learning – they aim to provide Octavian with the best education possible.

The experiment goes well, and young Octavian becomes well-versed in the classics and becomes a violin virtuoso.  But then the college falls on hard times, after its nobleman benefactor removes his financial support when he is spurned by Octavian’s mother.  A new head arrives, with a different goal for the Octavian study – he wants to prove that, despite the best education possible, an African cannot amount to much.  Octavian becomes more or less just another household slave, and is subjected to numerous indignities.  This all at the same time as revolutionary zeal for “freedom” is mounting; the disconnect between the colonists desire for freedom and the rejection of the same for their slaves is agonizing to Octavian.

The final straw is the pox party referred to by the title.  Octavian and everyone in the household are crudely inoculated against smallpox; many get sick anyway.  Octavian’s mother is one who dies.  Octavian walks in on the scientists dissecting her, and snaps.  His race’s status as things to be studied, not people, could not be made more apparent.  He runs away, finding a place digging ditches within the newly mobilized colonial militia.

There is a very interesting change in narration during the (short) period while Octavian is a runaway.  This period is told through a series of letters, mainly by fellow militiaman private Evidence Goring, writing to his sister Fruition (love those names).  The rest of the book is told from Octavian’s first person narration, using super-erudite period dialogue (which is also very interesting and humorous at times – e.g. the formal language Octavian uses to describe the scientists measuring his leavings in the chamberpot).

Octavian eventually is recaptured and subjected to further cruelties before escaping again with the help of one of the philosophers, kindly Dr. Trefusis.  The book ends with them escaping into occupied Boston…to be continued.

Lots of weighty stuff to think about here about race, slavery, equality, liberty, hypocrisy…  An interesting take on the time period as well.  In the wake of the Dunmore Proclamation, rumors that the British were trying to confiscate colonist’s weapons and simultaneously incite slave revolt made white colonists very, very nervous.  This is an aspect of the Revolution that I hadn’t considered/known about before.

Also interesting (accurate?): the colonists refer to the British army as the “Parliamentarian army”, etc.  Their enemy was Parliament, not the King.

“War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy

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Started reading about 4 months ago…the hefty hardcover weighs about 4 pounds, so I guess I can read/tolerate 1 pound of Tolstoy per month?

This is a story which spans at least 5 major characters (Andrei, Pierre, Natasha, Nikolai, Marya) and about 20 years, although really focuses on Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812.  Overall I liked the characters a lot.  They all seemed very real, with very human, very real and complex motivations.

Tolstoy says a lot about wars, mainly how pointless they are.  There’s always a big buildup and grand strategizing beforehand, but then just confusion and powerlessness and senseless brutality and waste of life during actual battle.  (Before Borodino, Andrei posits a paradoxical solution to war: that war should become more savage and less governed by “rules of war”, because then the aristocracy would not go to war unless really set on risking their own lives, property, and positions.)  Tolstoy says that the whole Russian response to the invasion was largely pointless — first the Russians tried to delay French progress towards Moscow, but driving deep into the Russian hinterland without adequate supplies was what actually broke the French; then during the French retreat after Borodino, the Russian army didn’t need to do a thing, yet kept on picking fights and delaying the French exit.

Pierre is my favorite character.  He cares deeply for a rotating variety of worthy causes and is well educated and virtuous, but can never seem to find his own comfortable niche in life (until the epilogue, that is).  He’s always somehow out-of-place and uncomfortable with the responsibilities and expectations placed on him by others.  At one point, he turns to Masonry and finds temporary peace, but becomes frustrated with his Mason brothers’ lack of real zeal.  During the fall of Moscow, he is captured by the French and put into a prison camp.  After he is freed, he enters a state of well-being: still awkward and confused by things, but at least life isn’t as bad as it can be.  An encounter with a happy-go-lucky fellow prisoner has a profound effect on his outlook.

The emotional high point of the book was when Natasha, young and gullible, broke her engagement with the noble Andrei and nearly eloped with the scoundrel Anatole.  Oh, Natasha, Natasha…*sigh*

Tolstoy frequently goes on at length about his theory of history.  He discounts the influence of any one individual in determining the flow of events; rather he puts the people as a whole as the main driver, pushed on inexorably by a multitude of causes, many unknowable.  France did not invade Russia because Napoleon commanded it; rather Napoleon was swept along with all the rest of the French on their way to Russia.  Not sure I really buy it … I think there are plenty of examples where the actions of a single individual had profound consequences.  (As an example from a book on Churchill I’m listening to and will write about soon, consider Admiral de Robeck‘s abandonment of the Dardanelles naval campaign, when really all he was up against were a handful of naval mines and empty guns on the shore.  WWI would have been over a few years earlier if he had just pressed on for another day or two.)

“War and Peace” ends on a happy note, and with a worthwhile message.  Nikolai & Marya and Pierre & Natasha all find happiness and contentment in their children and family life.  All the politics and war and stuff – it doesn’t really matter; and we can’t really control it anyway.  What we can control is how we live at home.  We all just want to be happy with our families.

“Victus: The Fall of Barcelona” by Albert Sánchez Piñol

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I got thrown off for a bit when I started this book — missed the little “A Novel” postscript below the title.  “Hmmm this is in first person with a kind of crotchety old man as a narrator, kind of odd for a historical book, but hey maybe that’s how they do it in Spain…”  Then I realized that it was historical fiction, and it made much more sense.  The format is the memoirs of Marti Zuviria, an aged siege engineer recounting his long ago participation in the War of the Spanish Succession and especially the siege of Barcelona.

In the beginning, the brash young Zuvi somewhat accidentally becomes a student of Vauban, one of the greatest military siege engineers of the day, expert at both designing fortifications and planning offensive strategies to overcome them.  Zuvi catches engineering fever and quickly becomes Vauban’s protege (as well as falling in love with his daughter) and is inducted into the quasi-secret society of engineers.  When Vauban falls mortally ill, his dying conversation with Zuvi is a graduation examination of sorts: “What is the optimal defense?”  Zuvi gives all the “correct” answers, but Vauban rejects them one by one, almost pleading with Zuvi to give him the answer, it’s “just one word!”  He can’t think of it; Vauban dies; and Zuvi feels a little disgraced.  Although a native of Barcelona, Zuvi has been studying in France for several years and so joins up with the French army, which is fighting alongside the Spanish/Castilians against the Allies (Austria, Britain, and Catalonia).  Evidently siege engineers are somewhat mercenary in nature and aloof from being bound by nationality.

That’s how it starts; Zuvi eventually switches to the Allied side, then back briefly to the French side (although only for reasons of sabotage — what better way to counter a siege than to “help” your enemy draw up deviously faulty attack plans?) and finally to the hopeless Catalan defense of besieged Barcelona.  Along the way he becomes confidant to each opposing general, the Duke of Berwick (“Jimmy”) and Antonio de Villarroel.  Furthermore, he discovers that war is not all fun and games and engineering puzzles; it’s full of death and pain and awful meaninglessness.  For a long time, I thought the big reveal of Vauban’s “one word” would be “peace,” since that’s the only way no one gets hurt.  Later, when all of Zuvi’s loved ones die, I began to think that the answer must be “death,” since if you are dead no one can hurt you anymore.  But the actual answer (or what Zuvi ultimately accepts, from Villarroel in Vauban’s stead) was <spoiler>“give yourself,” eg. sacrifice your all</spoiler> …. uhh that’s not one word.  Methinks something got lost in translation; there’s probably is a single Spanish word which encapsulates that idea.  But it doesn’t totally make a lot of sense … even with it, Zuvi wasn’t able to defend Barcelona against admittedly impossible odds.

Anyway a pretty good story.  Zuvi’s irreverent asides and insults to his overweight scribe, Waltraud, were pretty funny and gave the book a nice tone.