The Stockholm Octavo. Karen Engelmann. 2012: Ecco. ISBN: 9780061995347.
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It may be summertime, but Karen Engelmann’s wintry The Stockholm Octavo makes for a delicious page-turning beach read.
The year is 1789 and if that date sounds familiar, it’s year one of the French Revolution. King Louis XVI has just been deposed, an event that has all of Europe talking–even in faraway Stockholm, where Engelmann’s tale is set. It’s quite the topic of conversation in Sofia Sparrow’s gambling parlor if, for no other reason, Sweden is also riven between monarchists and erstwhile republicans. Mrs. Sparrow is a staunch defender of tradition and monarchy; she’s also an odd bird–a mysterious woman of faded elegance whose establishment falls into the tolerated-but-not-quite-legal category. She also reads Tarot cards and counts Sweden’s King Gustav III among her confidants.
As even the most casual student of history knows, the French Revolution was not confined to France. Before the dust settled, all of Europe was at war. In some places, aristocrats were strengthened; in others, they tumbled from power and grace. Most nobles understood that, in one way or another, their fates lay in the restoration of Louis to power. Plots were hatched in every palace in Europe, including Stockholm.
But this isn’t a novel about politics per se; it’s really a power struggle between Sparrow and a pretentious woman nicknamed The Uzanne, who wants Gustav off the throne and his brother (her lover) in power and not because she finds him a dynamic bedmate. The Uzanne is the fashionable woman we presume Sparrow once was; she’s rich, attractive, and the very soul of womanly arts. In those days, this involved how to use fans to one’s social advantage. The Uzanne not only knows how to encode messages in how she holds her fan; she also possesses Sweden’s largest and most valuable collection of them, including a favorite she loses to Sparrow at the card table. Every fashionable young woman in Stockholm wants to learn the art of the fan from the Uzanne, but are they her pupils or are they accomplices in something more sinister?
The monkey in the middle is Emil Larsson, a carefree playboy and ambitious low-level government bureaucrat (sekretaire) whom Sparrow takes under her tutelage. She lays out an octavo, an eight-card Tarot configuration, which is allegedly Emil’s key to fortune and happiness. All he has to do is figure out who plays the various roles foreseen in the cards (Companion, Trickster, Teacher, etc.). Larsson soon learns that his octavo and Sparrow’s are intertwined and that his personal path is strewn with danger and intrigue involving, among others, false loves, a female apothecary, and a family of fan makers. What is in play? Black magic, or something earthly but more evil?
The Stockholm Octavo is, at base, a complex mystery. It is exceedingly well written, pays meticulous attention to detail, and unveils a cast of unforgettable characters (both major and minor). You’ll want to learn more about late 18th century Sweden, and I’ll guarantee you’ll never again think of Tarot cards or fans the same way.--Rob Weir