Mysterious Book Report The Stockholm OctavoThe Stockholm Octavo by Karen Englemann

Harper-Collins-ECCO, $26.99, 421 pages, ISBN 978-0-06-199534-7

After the wild ride we took with last week’s cultish thriller, (Gun Church, MBR 87)  I wanted to find another equally compelling novel, but one that’s the polar opposite in content, style and focus.  Dame Fortune smiled and sent all of us a beautifully-written debut novel that’s historical fiction at it’s very best.  It combines history, romance, political intrigue, danger, scandal, conspiracy and a bit of magic for good measure.  It’s the perfect antidote for the winter blahs and the relentless unending depression of current events.

The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Englemann takes place in Stockholm, Sweden at the end of the eighteenth century . . . a pivotal time . . . a time when the newly-liberated American colonies were deciding the shape of their constitution, bill of rights and presidency; the French and Swedes were making life-altering decisions about the shape and form of their governments of and by royalty.  If intelligent writing, on a number of levels, appeals to you, seek out and read this entertaining and complex novel.  But wait . . . I’m getting ahead of myself . . .

As the novel begins, we’re introduced to Emil Larson an aspiring, and ambitious, man-about-town.  He’s a low-level bureaucrat in a corrupt system, a drinker, carouser and card-playing bachelor who frequents the gambling house of Mrs. Sophia Sparrow.  They are both royalists, supporters of King Gustav III, a progressive and enlightened monarch entering his twentieth year on the throne.  But in addition to being a gaming room operator, Mrs. Sophia Sparrow is a practitioner of cartomancy.  She’s a seer, who reads fortunes in a set of tarot cards which she lays in a spread called the Octavo, which has a total of nine cards.  She’s politically savvy, active and a confidante of King Gustav as well as his brother Duke Karl, who covets the throne and has aligned himself with the forces of the patriotic opposition, bent on overthrowing the King.  Against this beehive of intrigue, Emil Larson engages his friend, Mrs. Sparrow to lay the cards for him, so he might know his own path to love and happiness.  As he soon finds out however, although the cards can foretell the future, they don’t determine the future, nor are they easy to decipher.  Along the way, this fascinating work of intrigue and infighting will enlighten the reader about the language of fans, which the women of the royal court used to express their emotions, as well as flirt with and control members of the opposite sex.  You’ll experience the sights, sounds and smells of the Swedish seat of power in the 1790’s and be introduced to the healing arts of the apothecary in addition.

The Stockholm Octavo, is a sophisticated and witty novel that can be read and enjoyed by all readers.  Book club members will rejoice in this one, it has plenty of material for hours of discussion and dissection and has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and The Library Journal.  High praise indeed . . . with which I heartily agree.


John Dwaine McKenna