The “Octavo” is a set of eight cards that, when dealt by an expert, provides all the clues the subject will need in order to chart a successful path through life. One such expert is the visionary Mrs. Sparrow, who runs the Octavo for her well-heeled friends (including King Gustav himself) in the upper room of her famous Stockholm tavern. One fateful night, the subject of the Octavo is neither aristocratic nor regal, but the book’s dashing, scrupulous narrator, Emil Larsson. A customs official for Stockholm’s great port, Emil is doing his best to climb the complex and intrigue-ridden social ladder of 18th-century Swedish society. Mrs. Sparrow has had an urgent vision: She must lay out Emil’s Octavo immediately. The future of the nation itself is hiding somewhere in his cards.

Even the most stalwart fans of the genre would admit that historical fiction often relies on stereotyped characters. In The Stockholm Octavo, debut author Karen Engelmann turns a nifty card trick, transforming this convention into her novel’s supreme virtue. The Octavo encompasses every conceivable type, each one fixed in place within the mystical pattern: The central Seeker, the obscure Companion, the crafty Teacher, the suppliant Prisoner, the all-important Key, etc. Right at the start, through the medium of Mrs. Sparrow’s dealings, Engelmann literally lays her fictional cards on the table. The fascination of the cards’ unfolding gives way to even greater narrative magic, when Emil must wield all his intelligence and resources to identify the actual persons who embody the eight figures of his Octavo.

With flawless instinct, Engelmann conflates mystery and romance, as circumstances conspire to withhold from Emil the cards’ real-life counterparts. Most elusive of all—and most page-turning for the reader—is the identity of the woman he is meant to love and to wed. Misstep follows upon misdirection; it is not even clear which Octavo position his beloved will assume. The only certainty is that if Emil does not act quickly, the treasonous element in King Gustav’s court will have its dark way, sending Sweden, like France, into its own revolutionary nightmare. Is this historical, or is it fiction? The answer—the ace up Karen Engelmann’s sleeve—is yes.

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Read a Q&A with Karen Engelmann about The Stockholm Octavo.

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