For fans of Patrick Suskind’s classic Perfume comes a dazzling debut set during Stockholm’s opulent golden age and brilliantly interweaving history, romance, and intrigue - a story in which one man’s fortune holds the key to a nation’s precarious fate.
Life is close to perfect for Emil Larsson, a self-satisfied bureaucrat in the Office of Customs and Excise in 1791 Stockholm. He is a true man of the town - a drinker, card player, and contented bachelor - until one evening when Mrs. Sofia Sparrow, a fortune-teller and proprietress of an exclusive gaming parlor, shares with him a vision she has had: a golden path that will lead him to love and connection. She lays an octavo for him, a spread of eight cards that augur the eight individuals who can help him realize this vision - if he can find them.
Emil begins his search, intrigued by the puzzle of his octavo and the good fortune Mrs. Sparrow’s vision portends. But when Mrs. Sparrow wins a mysterious folding fan in a card game, the octavo’s deeper powers are revealed. For Emil it is no longer just a game of the heart; collecting his eight is now crucial to pulling his country back from the crumbling precipice of rebellion and chaos.
Set against the luminous backdrop of late 18th-century Stockholm, as the winds of revolution rage through the great capitals of Europe, The Stockholm Octavo brings together a collection of characters, both fictional and historical, whose lives tangle in political conspiracy, love, and magic in a breathtaking tale that will leave you spellbound.
©2012 Karen Engelmann (P)2013 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
"Delicious… The essence of witty intelligence. Readers will delight [in] every element in this Swedish weave, from the brutal winter weather to the unfurling of a lady’s fan. The plot is an urgent one, and the characters mysterious, appealing, and memorable.… I felt a real kinship with author Karen Engelmann." (Sena Jeter Naslund, New York Times best-selling author of Ahab’s Wife)
"A delicious page-turner that brings 18th-century Stockholm to vivid life, complete with scandal, conspiracy, mystery, and a hint of magic. Karen Engelmann’s spectacular debut drew me in.… A captivating tale, beautifully told." (Eleanor Brown, New York Times best-selling author)
"A juicy page-turner… Engelmann’s intellectually playful take on the mathematics of love and power proves irresistible." (O, The Oprah Magazine)
Painter, musician, bibliophile...
I had high hopes for this novel. So many positive critical reviews, a time in history that fascinates me, a country I dearly love, and what sounded like some really interesting characters. All this with Simon Vance's narration? How could I resist?
But I wish I had.
The basic publisher's book description sets the scene: Emil Larsson encounters a cartomancer at a gaming house, she reads his cards, and thus are set into motion the events of the novel.
As a commercial artist, Ms. Engelmann certainly does have an eye for sensory detail. To name but one example, the reader learns more than she ever wanted to know about the subject of fans, their construction, uses, and "language." While this is the special interest of one character, the Baroness Uzanne, some may find this quantity of detail a bit much. At times it felt as if Ms. Engelmann tried to include every bit of fan-related knowledge she acquired, whether or not it added anything to the story.
The characters were not very believable, nor did I care much what happened to them. Possibly this is because they are of secondary importance to the structure in which this story is told. And that, for me, was the real problem: the over-reliance upon form is fatal to this novel. From the outset, the structure of "the Octavo" does not so much underpin the structure of the story as visibly dominate it.
When Sofia Sparrow reads the cards for Emil, she tells him "....any event that may befall the seeker can be connected to a set of eight people, and the eight must be in place for the event to transpire." These are: the Companion, the Prisoner, the Teacher, the Courier, the Trickster, the Magpie, the Prize, and the Key, all of which center around the Seeker. This construct made the book feel very much like the result of a creative writing course in pseudo-mythic storytelling. (As an aside, there is another book, "The Octavo Handbook" that is sold as a divination guide on the author's website).
I was also hoping for a somewhat more original set of circumstances, or at least an interesting treatment of known circumstances, in an historical novel. Although the period may be unfamiliar to those who know little of Sweden, the story itself is just a dressing up of a theme treated many times before. To name but two examples, Daniel Auber's opera of 1833, and Verdi's 1859 "Un ballo in maschera" were also inspired by the times of King Gustav III, and in particular, his assassination during a masquerade ball.
Better luck next credit.
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