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The first volume (yes—there is a second, equally long, volume) is all about Octavian's life at the Novanglian College of Lucidity. The what? Yeah, we know—that name is a mouthful. Let's just call it the College.
Anyway, the College is basically the "master"/ "owner" of Octavian and his mother Cassiopeia, both slaves from an African nation. Unsurprisingly then, Octavian has a pretty twisted relationship with the College—and it takes four separate sections to develop.
"Venus"… Hrm… sounds a little romantic, right? Well, that's kind of the point here.
Octavian's this young boy who is basically treated like a little prince at the College. Why? We find out that he's an experiment of the College, which is made up of all these different philosophers, scientists, and artists located in Boston.
The head of the College, Mr. Gitney (or 03-01 as he names himself, after a numerological naming system he's invented), "took" (or bought) Octavian's mother Cassiopeia at a slave auction when Cassiopeia was just fourteen and pregnant.
But instead of turning Cassiopeia (who is supposedly a royal Princess of an African court) and her son into house or field slaves, Mr. Gitney decides to use them as evidence that—yes—African people can be as smart as white people if given a classical education.
Octavian's especially important to them because he's like their tabula rasa, or clean slate, since he was born at the College. In fact, Mr. Gitney is the one to name both Octavian and Cassiopeia (we never find out Cassiopeia's real name).
So their days are all about Octavian's education. He goes around from tutor to tutor, covering all the major classical subjects of that day—math, science, Greek, Latin—in addition to playing the violin, which he turns out to be a virtuoso at.
Things are great at the College for the most part, though things are definitely a little weird. For example, Octavian eventually figures out—with the help of a house slave named Bono—that he and his mother are still technically slaves even though they have all sorts of freedoms in the house. It's a bit of a shocker to Octavian since he's never really served anyone in his life, so he can't fully connect to the other slaves.
At the same time, it's not like his education is all sunshine and unicorn moonbeams. Mr. Gitney isn't exactly into traditional teaching methods, and instead he's all about making Octavian "Observant"—that is, someone able to detach himself from the moment and remain objective, like an ideal scientist.
This means Mr. Gitney puts Octavian through all sorts of cruel, on-the-spot lessons, like watching Octavian's dog die from a poisoning experiment gone wrong or watching all sorts of other animals get killed through some type of scientific experiment.
But all in all, Octavian sucks up knowledge like a sponge and enjoys—if that's the right word—his life at the College.
So does Cassiopeia, who is treated like the queen she's supposed to be. Her main purpose is to captivate all the scholars and guests who walk through the door, and she entertains men just by being her beautiful, witty, regal self. This means dancing with and talking to the men, and—importantly—nothing more. Not a bad job, right?
Their fortunes turn though, when one of the main funders—a Lord Cheldthorpe—of the College dies. His nephew, the New Lord Cheldthorpe, visits the College and is completely seduced by Cassiopeia's charm and beauty. It's a good thing too because he's not exactly a scientific man; in fact, think of him as your classic jock, but from colonial times.
Mr. Gitney sees that Cassiopeia's the key to Lord Cheldthorpe's heart, and therefore also the key to the College's continued funding, so he convinces Cassiopeia to join the men on an extended camping trip into the New York woods.
Everything on that camping trip seems wonderful. Nature is beautiful; the College men are able to do all sorts of experiments and observe all sorts of natural phenomenon; Lord Cheldthorpe is able to hunt and flirt with Cassiopeia. Octavian gets to continue his studies out in Nature and learns to swim from Lord Cheldthorpe too. They even observe—ahem—the transit of Venus across the sky.
Once they return to the College though, things change. Lord Cheldthorpe wants Cassiopeia to go back to London with him; he's willing to set her up well as his mistress and she can bring Octavian too. Only Cassiopeia is too proud—she wants a marriage that befits her royal line, so she not only turns him down, she rejects him hard.
Lord Cheldthorpe doesn't take kindly to this rejection and attacks her, but Octavian interrupts things before they can get too physical. The end result? Cassiopeia and Octavian get whipped for the first time, while Lord Cheldthorpe takes off and withdraws his financial support of the College.
Without Lord Cheldthorpe's money, Mr. Gitney gets desperate and has no choice but to accept a new guy into the College—a Mr. Sharpe, who represents a company of investors in the College.
Mr. Sharpe is the exact opposite of Mr. Gitney and all the other College scholars—he is totally practical and only thinks something is important if it can earn money. So he turns the College around and forces the scholars to align their experiments with practical ends.
It's not just the scholars' experiments that change under Mr. Sharpe—so do Octavian and Cassiopeia's lives. Octavian isn't allowed to read narratives anymore, and suddenly his entire education is all about learning the most abstract stuff without any kind of story behind it.
In other words, Octavian gets schooled in the absolute, most boring way possible, and all because Mr. Sharpe has determined that such an education will show whether Octavian can truly become an abstract thinker—which is the true mark of intelligence, according to Mr. Sharpe. Octavian's also, by the way, not allowed to learn the violin anymore.
Cassiopeia gets her dress account slashed, and she also has to find a way to make herself useful. In fact, both Cassiopeia and Octavian become servants of the house. Octavian doesn't really mind though, because he gets to work with Bono, who turns out to be a father/brother figure for him.
While all of this is going on inside the College, outside the College, Boston and the rest of the colonies are gearing up for war against the Brits. There's a lot of violence and ransacking of British goods because the colonialists are all against being taxed on British goods (you know, no taxation without representation and all that jazz).
Outside events and College events clash when the Brits take over Boston, so the College crew flees to the countryside, where one of Mr. Gitney's brothers has a mansion. Once they get to Canaan, Bono gets traded to some gentleman backer down in the Virginia colony; when he leaves, Octavian's life starts to stink even more.
As their stay at the mansion in Canaan, Massachusetts extends into the spring, Mr. Gitney and Mr. Sharpe decide to hold a pox party. They're going to invite all the funders and their families to Canaan to get inoculated against the smallpox, which has been a spreading worry for some of the colonies.
The party is supposed to last for as long as the guests need to get over the small bit of pox virus they get infected with.
When the party begins, everyone gets inoculated—including the slaves. It's a real party, with lots of food and dancing, but as people fall sick over the next few days—including the slaves—the party sort of dies down. Go figure.
Plus, the Young Men (a.k.a. the young backers of the College) are tense, and keeping watch over the slaves. Why? There are all these rumors about the Brits stirring up the slaves to rebel against the colonialists, so the Young Men—with a whole arsenal of guns—stand watch over everyone in the house while people are recovering from the smallpox. The smallpox vaccine also purposely weakens the slaves so that the Young Men have a better chance of fighting off a slave rebellion in their own house.
Only not everyone recovers from the pox vaccine. Three people become seriously ill: a young boy, one of the men, and Cassiopeia. The boy ends up dying and so does Cassiopeia. Octavian is sick too, but he eventually gets better—but as he recovers, he has to witness his mother get completely ravaged by the virus. Ugh.
At this point of the book, Octavian's writing gets replaced by other documents, including an excerpt of a scientific article Mr. Gitney and Mr. Sharpe produce. It turns out that the whole smallpox party was also an excuse to corral the slaves and run an experiment on how Africans respond to the smallpox vaccine.
Gitney and Sharpe detail how Cassiopeia not only dies, but gets dissected as well, and how Octavian ends up witnessing Cassiopeia's dissection.
See? Things have really changed… and they're going to keep on changing…
The third section is told entirely from the perspectives of people who either are searching for or come into contact with Octavian. Why? Because Octavian has escaped and gone into hiding.
We find out that Octavian runs from place to place, kind of like a zombie (can't blame him—he just saw his mother get dissected after all), until he ends up as a part of a band of Patriots, committed to fighting the Brits.
This company, especially a Private named Evidence Goring, befriends Octavian. They may be white, but they sympathize with Octavian—who goes by the name Prince now—and he earns his keep as a fiddler in the company as they go from battle to battle.
Goring charts Octavian's development from this guy who seems like he has a major death wish to a guy who starts to have a purpose—and that purpose, according to Goring, is to fight for liberty, not just from the Brits but from slavery itself. Goring thinks he's convinced Octavian that slavery will be on its way out if the Patriots win.
Problem is, while the militiamen fight the Brits, Mr. Sharpe has been trying to find Octavian. He and a couple of slave-catchers eventually track Octavian to Private Goring, who they fool into thinking they want Octavian to serve as a spy for the Patriots.
They don't, obviously. But Goring doesn't know it so he leads the men straight to Octavian, who gets caught and returned to the College.
At the beginning of Part 4, Octavian's back at the house in Canaan. He can't believe it and pretty much goes through all the stages of grief. Mr. Sharpe has him shackled, with a metal mask over his face and a metal bit in his mouth. Things have radically shifted from where they started back in Part 1, to say the very least.
Octavian is both super-philosophical and angry, all the way up until a final interview with Mr. Sharpe and Mr. Gitney. In the interview, Mr. Sharpe grills and lectures Octavian, especially on the necessity of slavery for America's economy.
Only—at the same time—Dr. Trefusis, one of Octavian's tutors whom Octavian has always been especially close to, manages to drug both Mr. Sharpe and Mr. Gitney. Dr. Trefusis masterminds and executes Octavian's and his escape from the College.
At the end of the book, Dr. Trefusis and Octavian have decided to cross the Channel from Roxbury to Boston in the dead of the night. In Boston, they hope to find some protection—or at least a place to hide—from Mr. Sharpe and the rest of the Young Men. Octavian doesn't know what else to expect, except that he sees the potential for freedom in Boston, a city now taken over by the Brits…
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