I was going to just write this review on Goodreads but this book was too good not to share. Another one of my reads from 2017!
Also, sidenote, I didn’t read the blurb before writing my review so apologies for the coincidental repetition!
The August Birds by Octavia Cade
Genre: Science History | Speculative Fiction
August is nine years old, and dreams of becoming a scientist. This is a dream that will never come true, because August is dying. The only dream that’s left to him now is that of reaching his tenth birthday, on the last day of the month he was named after.
Yet on the eve of that month, August gets two surprise visitors: time-travelling ravens Muninn and Huginn, come out of Norse mythology to bring him the science that he loves. On each of the final days of August, the birds take him back through time to an event in science that happened on that day – the writing of the Einstein-Szilard letter; the discovery of the first Neanderthal grave; helium and Hiroshima and hot air balloons…
August comes to understand that these trips into science aren’t simple kindnesses. They’re ways for him to come to terms with his own death, to make peace with his mortality. And, if Muninn has her way, they’ll give him a chance to cheat death after all…
I really, really enjoyed this one! The writing immediately stood out so I knew it was going to be a good read, and such an interesting premise! August wants to be a scientist when he grows up but he’s very sick and knows he’ll never reach that dream. A more manageable dream, he desperately wants to make it to his 10th birthday, which is a month away (the last day in August).
Two ravens, Muninn and Huginn (who I now know after reading American Gods!), appear in his room one day and make a deal with him — if he promises to hold on until his 10th birthday, they’ll show him a piece of science every day. Each of these days, we’re transported to a different time and location to see an important scientific discovery, invention, or event that happened on that date in history.
There were some that seemed more straightforward, like the first comet sighting, the invention of the hot air balloon, and the first finding of a Neanderthal skeleton, but the author didn’t shy away from more controversial moments in the history of science, like the Hiroshima bombing and the Night of the Murdered Poets (I hadn’t even heard of the second one before reading this book). These events weren’t described in full detail but enough that we could have a sense of what had occurred and understand its impact.
But even though this book taught me SO much about history (there was a lot of google searching in between reading – quagga, Kon Tiki raft, a plague outbreak in the 18th century?!), what made it such a powerful read was that it wasn’t just a story about science but about grief and illness and how these noteworthy moments in history could relate back to a young boy confined in his bed. I sometimes take issue with the way that young characters are written because often their dialogue seems at odds with their age, but here it made sense that August would be wise beyond his years. We needed that wisdom to explore these different levels of grief and pain as he comes to term with his own death, but he still remained that young boy who could be cranky and scared and so, so tired.
“The death that was coming for him, coming with birthday cake and candles, was something he had steeled himself for staring at and still it made no sense. If he were able to wear a special set of glasses like filters over his own eyes, or project his death through a tiny pinhole onto a wall of his bedroom so that he could study it, he might have been able to understand — but it loomed before him, incomprehensible and too bright to look at and his heart was overheated by it, burned up and turned all to ash.” (31)
This was somehow still an almost hopeful book in spite of, or because of, it being incredibly sad. I thoroughly enjoyed this read and can’t wait to read more by this author.
About the Author: Octavia Cade is a New Zealand author. She has a PhD in science communication and a particular interest in science history and marine studies. She’s most recently been researching the reproductive strategies of Zostera muelleri seagrass, and when she’s not thinking about science she’s thinking about horror.
She is the author of many short stories and novellas, including Trading Rosemary, The Don’t Girls, Vita Urbis, and The Life in Papers of Sofie K., which is a fantasy biography of the Russian mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya.
One of my fave reads from last year for sure! What was your last favourite read?