That night of cards began two years of exceeding good fortune at the tables, and in time led me to the Octavo – a form of divination unique to Mrs. Sparrow. It required a spread of eight cards from an old and mysterious deck distinct from any I have ever seen before. Unlike the vague meanderings of the market square gypsies, her exacting method was inspired by her visions and revealed eight people that would bring about the event her vision conveyed, an event that would shepherd a transformation, a rebirth for the seeker. Of course, rebirth implies a death, but that was never mentioned when the cards were laid. – from The Stockholm Octavo, page 9 –
It is Stockholm in 1791 – France has become a constitutional monarchy, and Sweden has won the war against Russia, but not without a huge loss of life and financial disaster. Emil Larsson, a bureaucrat in the Office of Customs and Excise, is single and enjoying success at cards when he meets Mrs. Sofia Sparrow who tells him she has had a vision. She proposes to lay an Octavo for Emil – a spread of eight cards which will identify eight individuals to help him realize the vision of love and connection. When Emil agrees to accept the Octavo, he has no idea it will lead to betrayal, murder and political intrigue as he navigates Swedish society in search of his eight.
The Stockholm Octavo unfurls like a beautiful silk fan, slowly revealing the characters and their real motivations and desires. The characters in this debut novel are seductive and gorgeously drawn. There is The Uzanne, a wealthy woman who collects fans and instructs young women in the art of the fan including Engagement and Domination.
“Miss Plomgren, you must learn that engagement is a crucial stage in any battle. If you draw close and are at your most enticing, you can extract your husband’s pension before your revenge.” – from The Stockholm Octavo, page 233 –
Johanna Grey (aka Johanna Bloom) is trained in the art of apothicaire and finds herself embroiled in a dark plot she has not anticipated. Mrs. Sparrow is mystical, slightly eccentric, and driven to solve the geometry of the Octavo to better understand her visions. The Nordens are Swedish fan-makers who have fled from the upheaval in France. The Plum (aka Anna Maria Plomgren) is a seductress who uses her feminine wiles to ascend the ladder into a world of the wealthy and politically powerful. There are also historical characters introduced: King Gustav III and his brother Duke Karl, and General Pechlin who was a longtime enemy of the King and led the Patriot forces against him.
Karen Englemann constructs her novel like a puzzle, adding the pieces, rearranging them, and finally revealing the complete plot while taking her readers on a delicious romp through 18th century Sweden. By mid-way through the novel, I was hooked and intrigued. Englemann captures the era and adds depth to the complicated history of Sweden which was on the brink of revolution by the end of 1791. The women characters in the book demonstrate the power women wielded during that time period (it is interesting to note that in France it was Parisian women who stormed Versailles in 1789 to protest the escalating bread prices).
I thoroughly enjoyed The Stockholm Octavo with its political intrigue, romance, betrayal, murder, magic and the snap of a lady’s fan. This is historical fiction at its best. Readers who love original plots and fascinating characters played out against the backdrop of history, will love this debut. I am looking forward to reading more of Karen Engelmann’s work.
FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.