Due to its subject matter, its intellectual insight, and its artistic ambitions (evident in the book’s shifting style), The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing has received considerably more critical attention than most young adult books do. Many brief reviews have been published, as well as a number of longer discussions of the work. All reviews highly praise several aspects of the novel. Susan Dove Lempke, in Reading Today, called the character development, sense of the period, and the thinking “brilliant.” The Kirkus Review called it “a historical novel of prodigious scope, power and insight” and praised Anderson for his originality—and for the book’s disturbing feel. As far as why the novel might be disturbing, many critics single out the novel’s combination of moral vision and willingness to reconsider cherished American myths regarding the Revolution. When a broad range of emotions are produced, as several reviewers indicate, and these are yoked to superior historical research so that Anderson’s critiques of colonial society cannot simply be waved away, the result is a book that may make readers uneasy, even as they respond to its quality.
Gillian Engberg, writing for Booklist, praised the novel and singled out its style for special commendation. However, the style is precisely what causes some reviewers concern, especially when considering the novel as a young adult book. Marvin Hoffman, in the Houston Chronicle, praised many aspects of the book but seemed highly skeptical that many actual young adults would ever read the novel due to its dense and complex style. Other reviewers express greater faith in young readers but admit that the style is challenging.
Whatever reservations may exist about the book’s difficulty, many venues agree about its quality. The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing was a National Book Award winner in 2006 and was listed as a 2007 Printz Award honor book.