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Review : The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann

06 Aug

The Stockholm Octavo is a rich historical thriller detailing a little-known episode of class warfare in Sweden during the height of the French Revolution.

Set almost entirely in The City, as Stockholm is known, this is the story of a callow young bureaucrat named Emil with a penchant for playing cards, who is told to marry —  or lose his cozy position as a customs inspector.  One night at the gambling tables, Emil encounters a mysterious older woman named Mrs. Sparrow, who pulls him into a web of intrigue and danger swirling around a mystical spread of cards called the Octavo, that will, she tells him, help find the wife he needs.  “Any event,” Mrs. Sparrow says, “that may befall the Seeker – any event—can be connected to a set of eight people. And the eight must be in place for the event to transpire.”

As Emil returns each night to learn what the next card in his Octavo might be, the reader is given illustrations of the cards and their layout, one card at a time.  And as Emil races to identify each of the eight players in his Octavo – identities with labels like ‘The Seeker, , The Magpie, and The Prize, he engages, perhaps for the first time, in something larger than his own interests, and must decide how far he is willing to go to get what he wants. Glittering scenes of fabulous wealth are juxtaposed with hints of the desperate lives of most Swedes at the time, and we are pulled with Emil into a sometimes bewildering maelstrom of politics, hatred, and desperation mixed with heady romance, fine art, and honor.   Will the Octavo turn out to be a real construct, or is the mysterious Sparrow using Emil for her own purposes?  Will he find the connection he seeks, or will he be tricked into committing treason?

With lush settings, finely drawn characters, and a darkening plot that involves refugees from the violence in France, fabulously expensive custom wrought fans, poisons, Kings, maids, and runaways, this was a most entertaining foray into a piece of history I knew nothing about. And it also had me wondering who my own Octavo might be.

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