In Karen Engelmman’s The Stockholm Octavo Emil Larson is a young, self-centered, and often clueless clerk in Sweden’s bureaucracy when he gains entry into one of Stockholm’s premiere card salons, run by the enigmatic card sharp and diviner Mrs. Sparrow. Emil finds that his life quickly changes as he comes under her tutelage- at work he gains the title of Secretaire (a much coveted position that will have him set for life, so long as he marries), supplemental income gained from his skill at cards and a deepening friendship with his patron. Based on her gift of sight, information gained from years as a fortuneteller, and her affinity for cards, Mrs. Sparrow develops a tarot spread based on the interconnectedness of eight influential people who are revealed in the spread she names The Octavo. When Mrs. Sparrow has a vision that includes Emile she agrees to read for him- he hopes that his “eight” will lead to love and connection, thereby saving his job, but Mrs. Sparrow sees a bigger picture. Even before Emil is fully committed, he is wrapped up in a plot with much higher stakes than what he expected – revolution and the life of his king.
Englemann’s novel reminded me of a much more accessible Tale of Two Cities, albeit it one about Sweden and the plot to assassinate Gustav III. The French Revolution is closely intertwined with this king’s notions of royalty, preserving his right to rule (and that of other sovereigns), yet retaining the love and goodwill of his subjects. Mrs. Sparrow does her best to help Gustav navigate the treachery among members of his court, and her card readings, and the intricate fan messages of the ladies at court, overtake the role of Madame Defarge’s knitting needles as far as messages and instruments of destruction are concerned. Swedish history was a complete mystery to me and Engelmann does a worthy job of providing an overview of its political structure and concerns of the time, while her plot and characters flesh out its social history, mores and workings of the community. The lives of the nobility and their use of pawns in murder plots as they jockey for power and position, corruption and graft within the government, and trends and fashions of the times are all created in historical accuracy, and skillfully rendered prose and dialogue.
Also of interest were fanaticism and the use of the tarot cards and fortune tellers to determine plans and a path of life achievement. The Octavo is far from infallible and requires a considerable amount of guesswork and fitting facts into its framework- to those caught up in its events it can seem to make sense, but as an outsider to their world I had a healthy dose of skepticism as to its accuracy. Their unwavering belief in it, no matter what happened, was tedious at times. As much as I wanted to shake some of the characters, I could also see how they wanted to buy into the allure of the cards, and how they offered connections to other people- they provided meaningful opportunities for interaction among those who were lonely, new to the country or just needed something to believe in. Engaging characters and a well-integrated historical plot make for a charming and thought provoking read. Recommended.