The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann
Ecco • $25.99 • ISBN 9780061995347
Published October 23, 2012

If you love historical fiction with settings that are out of the common way, read on. Karen Engelmann's entertaining debut is set in 18th-century Sweden, a country at the height of its political and military power—although King Gustave III, like all monarchs of the time, is keeping a close eye on revolution-era France.

Up-and-coming young merchant Emil Larsson finds himself entangled in his country's fate after a stop at the local gaming establishment. The proprietress, Mrs. Sparrow, has had a vision that predicts his involvement in a pivotal event involving the monarch, and asks to deal his "Octavo," a divination card game she has invented. The basics are explained by Emil early in the book, as he recalls his first visit to Mrs. Sparrow's exclusive establishment:

Mrs. Sparrow held her breath and traced one line on my palm with a long slender finger. Her hands were cool and soft, and they seemed to float above and at the same time cradle mine. All I could think at the moment was that she would excel as a pickpocket, but she was not about folderol—I checked my pockets later—and her gaze was warm and calm. "Mr. Larsson, you were born to the cards, and it is here in my rooms you will play them to your best advantage. I think we have many games ahead." The warmth of that triumph traveled top to toe, and I remember lifting her hands to my lips to seal our connection with a kiss. 

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 had 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.

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Related in BookPage: check out our review of The Stockholm Octavo and a Q&A with Karen Engelmann.

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