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The Stockholm Octavo    by Karen Engelmann order for
Stockholm Octavo
by Karen Engelmann
Order:  USA  Can
Ecco, 2013 (2012)
Hardcover, Softcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Having already pulled himself out of poverty, Emil Larsson is content with his comfortable life as a sekretaire in the Office of Customs and Excise in 1791 Stockholm, the Venice of the North. His duties are far from onerous and he spends his free time playing cards in the elegant gaming rooms of Mrs. Sofia Sparrow. She is also a fortune-teller who makes predictions for King Gustav III himself. She uses the Octavo, requiring 'a spread of eight cards from an old and mysterious deck'.

Soon Emil badly needs a prediction of what's ahead for him. His pious Superior insists that he marry by midsummer, or lose his position. As Emil seeks his perfect match, Mrs. Sparrow shares a vision she has had that will lead him to 'Love and connection.' In the nights that follow, she lays an Octavo for him, hinting at the nature of the eight people he must identify, to help him realize his goal. Of course, what follows is a comedy of errors, as Emil gets it all wrong and repeatedyly fixates on the wrong individuals.

At the same time, unrest is simmering in Sweden. The nobles are extremely unhappy with King Gustav III's reforms, giving commoners rights and privileges previously reserved for the aristocracy - 'people expected violence served up with a revolution - America, Holland, and France being freshly carved examples.' Soon Emil finds himself embroiled in deadly intrigue, alongside Mrs. Sparrow, whose own Octavo overlaps with his and who is anxious to foil treachery against the king.

The villain of the piece, also one of Emil's Octavo, is a Baronness known as The Uzanne. She works against the monarchy, hoping to instal Gustav's brother Karl as a puppet. She has a passion for folding fans, which she collects and handles with expertise, using their 'arresting language' as a magical weapon to achieve her aims. Her favorite is Cassiopeia, a fan with a secret shaft previously owned by Madame de Montespan, mistress of Louis XIV and a reputed poisoner - can you guess where this is going?

The Uzanne loses Cassiopeia at Mrs. Sparrow's tables and is desperate to regain her. She takes on a poverty stricken country girl, Johanna Grey, who is trained as a herbalist and renamed as Miss Bloom. At first she asks Johanna to make household medicines, but gradually her demands grow more sinister. The Uzanne and Johanna are both members of Emil's Octavo, as is a calligrapher/Mason, a fan maker and his wife, an actress, and a smuggler. As events unfold, Emil risks death more than once before his new life begins with the new century.

The Stockholm Octavo has it all - a fascinating era; political intrigue; prophecy and magic; the language and artistry of folding fans; romance and connection; and characters (good and bad) you will want to spend time with. Totally engrossing and not to be missed, this is my favorite historical novel of 2012.

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