May 19, 2013

Novelist draws a winning hand in ‘Octavo’

“The Stockholm Octavo” by Karen Engelmann (Ecco, 416 pages, $26.99)

“The Stockholm Octavo” by Karen Engelmann (Ecco, 416 pages, $26.99)

Karen Engelmann’s first novel, set in late 18th-century Stockholm, is a captivating indulgence in political intrigue, romance, societal manners of the time and cartomancy. “The Stockholm Octavo” centers on Emil Larsson, a card player and bon vivant of the Town (that is, Stockholm). He has recently done well enough at the gaming table to purchase a position of responsibility in the Office of Customs and Excise. This rise in station is accompanied by a demand from his superior to elevate his standing in society by marrying. Determined not to risk his newly gained title and ensuing comforts, Emil sets about to find a suitable and desirable trophy wife.

Fate intervenes when Mrs. Sofia Sparrow, local fortuneteller and the owner of his favorite gaming establishment, informs him that she has had a vision of a golden path set out for him to follow. She produces a deck of playing cards to serve as guides for her highest form of divination: the Octavo. Over the course of the next eight nights, she continues to lay the Octavo, drawing out cards representing eight unnamed people who will affect Emil’s life and path. Thus begins his quest to identify those eight individuals, one of whom he is confident will become his wife, thereby securing his bureaucratic future.

Indeed, a fascinating parade of characters duly intersects Emil’s life. One of these is a ruthless baroness who collects folding fans and protegees. She is so adept in the artful and arresting language of the fan that she considers this object of beauty to be her weapon. The collected fans are so singular and exquisitely crafted that each is given an individual name and referred to as “she.” Other significant personages entering Emil’s life include the French family of artisans who create some of these fans, a gloved calligrapher, a concertina-toting ship’s captain and a curiously colorless young barmaid skilled as an apothecary.

The frivolity of the Town’s fashionable society is obvious not only in obsessions with folding fans but also in the overarching prominence of playing cards, or “the devil’s tickets,” as one pious observer termed them. Emil comments that card games were present at every gathering, and “if you did not join in you were not considered rude but dead.”

Engelmann provides a helpful timeline to chart political events in Sweden and France from 1770 to 1792. Sweden’s King Gustav III came to the throne with French support and he consistently championed the French monarchy throughout his life.

As the story opens, the people of Sweden are divided between Royalists who support the king’s French alliances and Patriots who wish to replace King Gustav with his brother. Political intrigue lurks beneath almost every facet of daily life.

As the action accelerates, Emil’s Octavo is unobtrusively but intricately involved in the outcome of political events. Mrs. Sparrow urgently implores Emil to complete his task of identifying each person represented in his Octavo, because “love and connection hang in the balance, and the Crown is at stake.”

“The Stockholm Octavo” is based in historical fact but populated with unique and fascinating fictional characters. The plot is engrossing, and the period details are entertaining as well as enlightening. Engelmann cleverly deals a winning hand, playing to fruitful advantage the cards of conspiracy, mystery, love and magic.

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