Our volunteer reader gamboagan reviews The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann.
If you have torn through thrillers written by Umberto Eco and Katherine Neville, The Stockholm Octavo may come across as an unfortunate mess held up by its quasi-historical backdrop. It involves a divine card game that can bring you your heart’s desire, or leave you in ruins. What is at stake for Emil Larsson is the fate of his native Sweden at the turn of the 18th century. A customs officer who has clawed his way up to his position by taking advantage of fortuitous events, his cushy job is threatened when a senior officer declares that he must be wed.
Seeking solace at his favorite gambling den, he consults the local oracle, Mrs. Sofia Sparrow, who uses an unusual deck of cards, the Octavo, to tell fortunes. Over several days, she identifies eight personalities who are significant to Larsson. To win, he must gather his winning hand and play it well. However, since the book spends most of its time speculating on how relevant each character is to Larsson, the reader is caught between making his own conjectures about the true eight of this Octavo. Larsson and Sparrow discover that they share the same elements in their Octavos, in the same way everyone’s lives are intertwined and affect one another. It is all an authorial ruse to see Larsson married to his true love and for Mrs. Sparrow to ensure that the kings of France and Sweden keep their heads.
It requires great amounts of patience and coffee to finish this book, which does plod at times. Occasionally it attempts to bring in the esoteric woo-woo factor by mentioning aspects of the enneagram, the belief in eight as a lucky number and symbol of the fates. Engelmann tries too hard to be clever: at one point she goes into how everyone’s Octavo interacts with everyone else’s, like tiles in a grand mosaic. The story throws in a bit about the ingenious use of fans as tools of seduction and assassination.
The saving grace here is Engelmann’s talent for fleshing out characters, even though her plots are barely there and may leave the reader scratching her head at the holes. Other, more talented writers have essayed novels with complex plots and made them worth reading or even re-reading. This is a book that may leave you feeling like you’ve been abducted by aliens and violated: you know time has passed, you don’t remember much, you see The Stockholm Octavo and know you have far more engaging fare to spend your time with.