The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann

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The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Depicting 18th century Sweden at the height of European change and paranoia, although it's good, this novel isn't a 'quick read'. As it's densely rich in detail needing some time and patience and the synopsis may possibly lead to expectations of a different book entirely.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Two Roads
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1444742695

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As a Customs and Excise 'Sekretaire' in 18th century Stockholm, Emil Larsson has all he needs: professional respect, a bachelor's lifestyle and a table at Mrs Sparrow's gaming house whenever he fancies his luck. Contrastingly, his superiors at work feel he's missing a certain something. In order to climb further up the career ladder (maybe even to maintain his current position) Emil needs to marry. His manager believes this so fervently that there's a deadline for the wedding. Emil panics but Mrs Sparrow offers to lay an 'Octavo', a fortune-telling spread of eight cards to guide him to the eight people who will ensure his success. However, not all goes to plan as, over the eight nights it takes to complete the Octavo, it becomes apparent that the prediction isn't for Emil's future, but has become an Octavo to save the whole of Sweden.

The Stockholm Octavo started life as American illustrator and designer Karen Engelmann's creative writing course thesis and grew. It grew into a good, enjoyable novel but it feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity in places. Mainly because basing it on the Octavo seems inspired, hinting of fantasy or the supernatural but it's not followed up. The cards are laid out over the eight nights, the people are identified and that's it. The Octavo is simply a literal device via which we learn about eight characters whom Emil hopes will be a positive influence on his future but through whom he becomes accidentally embroiled in something else.

Karen Engelmann designs her characters bravely as no one's very sympathetic and most just aren't very nice people at all. Again, for me, this was a positive thing as we don't have to 'plump' for anyone or pick sides, just relax and let the narrative wash over us. I mean… just look at them: Emil is self-serving, self-satisfied and arrogant. He can't understand why his amour-target and heiress Carlotta doesn't accept his advances. She in turn is an opportunistic flirt, so in a way they'd deserve each other. Mrs Sparrow, gaming room proprietor is a professional woman who, being fair, doesn't have the off-duty time to show a softer side. As for the Baroness Uzanne, she's scheming, manipulative and very, very interesting as, it seems, people without any redeeming qualities are wont to be if you don't need to get too close. At first it seems as if the characters are being thrown at you at a cracking rate but be not alarmed: the flow of new people does slow down and each is skilfully embedded into your memory by way of a fascinating back story sooner or later.

As for the setting, I wasn't familiar with Sweden of that time but thanks to the author I understand more now. It's logical that Scandinavia quaked with the rest of Europe as the French monarch tottered and England lost her American colonies, but I didn't realise that Sweden had actively assisted in the attempt to help Louis XVI to escape.

For collectors of oddities, there's a Marmite of a sub-plot incorporating fans (as in primitive manual air conditioning, not band followers) as a secret language. This will either enthral you or have you reaching for the TV on-switch. I was totally entranced by such an original revelation and became a fan bore for a few days afterwards as a result but I have come across others who weren't as thrilled.

Just before you leave to start reading, a bit of reassurance. Don't expect to get through it in one evening; it refuses to be rushed. I can normally osmose into a novel for 5 hours at a time, no problem. However, where The Stockholm Octavo was concerned, I found that after 1 to 2 hours I had to stop to absorb and digest all the factoid and plot threads that make up the whole tapestry. This isn't a criticism. After all, something kept me coming back till the story had reached its conclusion and a satisfactory one at that.

I would like to thank Two Roads for providing Bookbag with a copy of this book for review.

If you've enjoyed this and fancy another historical novel based around fortune-telling (or even if you wish it had featured more in this one) then we suggest Cross My Palm by Sara Stockbridge.

Buy The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann at

Buy The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann at


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