Dangerous Liaisons meets Charles Dickens in the The Stockholm Octavo, Karen Engelmann’s debut novel, set in the chill of Sweden 1791-1792. Intrigue, lust, poisonous potions, murder, missed opportunities, misunderstandings, artisan French fans, cards – all combine deftly and, sometimes comically, to create a royal drama and a reading romp through the streets and back rooms of Stockholm.
Good historical fiction contains a wealth of accurate, historical detail, has characters both real and imagined, focuses on a particular point in history and is hefty. I would also say, in the case of The Stockholm Octavo, it is terrific fun!
Enter our hero, Emil Larsson, to the historical context of the reign of King Gustav lll and the opposing royalists, led by his brother Duke Karl. Emil is a mostly honest and passionate Sekretaire at the Customs House, a dutiful bureaucrat by day and a gambler by night – all night. Madame Sparrow welcomes Emil to her exclusive Stockholm gambling parlor saying,
“Mr. Larsson, you were born to the cards, and it is here in my rooms you will play them to your best advantage.”
Not yet 30, Emil is ambitious, open to adventure, and in need of friendship. This need turns to necessity when the Superior at the Customs House says be must become betrothed or lose his position.
“Mr. Larsson, you are the only sekretaire without even an intended. I require the announcement of your banns by midsummer.”
Good-bye perfect bachelor life.
Madame Sparrow suggests the Octavo, a form of card divination consisting of a spread of eight cards, laid out in a unique geometrical formation, which would guide ‘the seeker’ to a rebirth, in Emil’s case love.
The lovely Carlotta to the rescue. As he is about to pop the question, however, she is whisked away from him by the Uzanne, a lady with money, power and political ideals. Let us just say she is used to getting her own way and playing the Queen with the pawns who fawn around her.
Heartbroken and in fear of losing his job, Emil seeks direction from Madame Sparrow and the Octavo. If not Carlotta, who is his lady love?
She replies, “Now that the Octavo is complete, the eight will begin to appear, for the cards have called them out. They will come like iron filings to a magnet. Find them, and you can shift the outcome of your significant event”
Emil’s Octavo intertwines with history; his eight shifting, crossing and sometimes, double-crossing. No one is who they seem. Johanna Grey (dressed all in gray), a quick-witted, barmaid becomes apothecaire, Johanna Bloom under the Uzanne’s tutelage. Beware her potions. What is that powder emanating from the Uzanne’s fans? Master Fredrik Lind, calligrapher and very fine dresser (he has been known to dress in clothes not suited to his gender – gasp), seeks to be in the Uzanne’s favor in any way he can. Both Emil and Fredrik belong to the Freemason’s, the secret brotherhood, but should Emil trust their growing friendship? The lovely Nordens, Christian, wife Margot and brother Lars, seeking safety from France’s political upheaval, open up an atelier, where Christian creates fans of extraordinary beauty. Christian is a decent man and a devoted husband but Lars is rather a dandy falling for the charms of Anna Marie Plomgren, also known as the ‘plum’ and protégée of the Uzanne.
These are only a few of Emil’s Octavo eight. Engelmann develops an array of entertaining characters who betray, love, and assist Emil in his journey to ‘love’, whilst often satisfying their own needs. You see, no one is perfect in The Stockholm Octavo. And isn’t that how it should be for fictional characters? Perfect characters are dull and predictable. There is not a moment of lag time in all of the 411 pages.
A flick of the wrist from a woman well-versed in the language of the fan could convey a wide range of emotions and commands, from anger to lust to joy.
Here is a description of the Uzanne’s prize fan: “Cassiopeia was tall, the length of two hand spans. The guards and sticks were simple ivory, the rivet a silver stud set with a blue gemstone. The gorge was tight, and the face of the blade was painted with a mysterious landscape, the sky deep violet at the top, then cobalt facing to an orange sunset, wisps of cloud creating long red trails, an arc of departing birds.”
Karen Engelmann’s website, is chocked full of background information and graphically intricate. The site includes an extensive bibliography of the historical resources she used in writing the book, and descriptions of cartomancy (fortune-telling) and fan-making.
The Stockholm Octavo received starred reviews from Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. Author Sena Jeter Naslund (Ahab’s Wife) said this, “As delicious as dark chocolate…the essence of witty intelligence”
I recommend cozying up with this book for a long winter’s read, and then get out your deck of cards for a rousing, safe game or two of solitaire. But keep the pretty fans in the closet.
Published in the Sunday Herald (Portsmouth, NH), December 9, 2012.
Review by Sherry Evans, December 2012