The Stockholm Octavo
Karen Engelmann, 2012
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 proprietor 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 eighteenth-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 debut that will leave you spellbound. (From the publisher.)
Karen Engelmann lived and worked in Sweden for eight years. She has an MFA from Goddard College in Vermont. She currently lives in Dobbs Ferry, New York. (From the publisher.)
[A] deliciously sly first novel...The Stockholm Octavo is an irresistible cipher between two covers—an atmospheric tale of many rogues and a few innocents gambling on politics and romance in the cold, cruel north.
New York Times Book Review
A full deck of piquant pleasures...elegant and precarious...Engelmann captures the lost enterprises and values of another time, the weird customs that strike us as alien and foolish....[and] craftily unfolds her fictional story pleat by pleat within the real history of 1792.
A dizzying story of political intrigue and forbidden romance, all played out in an array of lost arts, from the reading of cards to the language of ladies’ fans to the healing power of plants. Each has its own delicious vocabulary and in Engelmann’s debut, each word is savored.
Blends political intrigue, fortune-telling, alchemy, skullduggery, high treason and love. The plot is so compelling it will keep you up at night, and the characters so well-crafted you will gladly follow them through the streets and alleys of 18th-century Stockholm
Minneapolis Star Tribune
Karen Engelmann’s absorbing debut doesn’t traffic in mystery so much as Mystery with a capital “m.” . . . . As she deftly shuffles characters, Engelmann’s hand moves faster than a reader’s eye in a thoroughly engaging story of intrigue and gamesmanship.” (Christian Science Monitor )A juicy page-turner.... Engelmann’s intellectually playful take on the mathematics of love and power proves irresistible.
O, The Oprah Magazine
Layered, absorbing, and rife with interesting fictional characters and genuine historical detail, Engelmann’s work kept me in suspense from this first page to the last.
(Starred review.) Political and social intrigue are merged through the medium of the mystical card layout called the Octavo in this debut novel of maneuvering aristocrats and striving tradesmen in late 18th-century Stockholm. In the reign of the alternately enlightened and autocratic King Gustav III, his brother Karl and the society doyenne known as the Uzanne scheme to return control of Sweden to the nobility.... Neatly mixing revolutionary politics with the erotic tension and cutthroat rivalry of the female conspirators...Engelmann has crafted a magnificent, suspenseful story set against the vibrant society of Sweden’s zenith, with a cast of colorful characters balanced at a crux of history.
The Stockholm Octavo, Karen Engelmann’s impressive debut, is as marvelously and intricately constructed as the mysterious form of divination it’s named for. A true pleasure from beginning to satisfying end.
(Starred review.) In her debut novel, set in 1790s Stockholm, Engelmann features a card game called Octavo. When the fortune-telling Mrs. Sophia Sparrow foresees a golden future for smug bureaucrat Emil Larsson, she lays an Octavo so that he can find the eight people who will help him realize that vision. Soon, it's evident that his search is linked with the fate of his country.
(Starred review.) Mysterious, suspenseful, and, at times, action-packed.
Elegant and multifaceted, Engelmann's debut explores love and connection in late-18th-century Sweden and delivers an unusual, richly-imagined read. Stockholm, "Venice of the North," in an era of enlightenment and revolution is the setting for a refreshing historical novel grounded in a young man's search for a wife but which takes excursions into politics, geometry (Divine and other), numerology, the language of fans and, above all, cartomancy—fortunetelling using cards.... The setup is wonderfully engrossing; the denouement doesn't deliver quite enough. But this is stylish work by an author of real promise.
1. THE OCTAVO
The Octavo indicates that much of life is pre-determined but the Seeker has the opportunity to influence outcomes. Which characters in the book embraced this philosophy and took charge of their destiny—with or without the Octavo? Which didn’t, and let fate takes its course? How does the OCTAVO help to advance the story? Did you find yourself wondering about your own Octavo?
Mrs. Sparrow claims to have the gift (and burden) of the Sight. Have you ever had an experience with divination? Were the predictions relevant and accurate? Do you believe in fate, free will, or (like the Octavo) a combination of both?
The entire novel (aside from backstory and some exposition) takes place in the Town. How does the setting enrich the story? What smells, tastes, and other details bring the setting to life? Do you think the city of Stockholm acts as a character in the novel? If yes, what affect does it have on the other characters?
4. FOLDING FANS
Possession of the fan Cassiopeia is a major motivation of the novel. What power and symbolism does the fan have and why? What other tools did women have at their disposal in this period? What did you think about the way fans are used by the Uzanne? Do you think the handling of the fan could be taught and used in the way that The Uzanne proposes? Why do you think the fan disappeared from use? Is there a modern equivalent of this must-have 18th century accessory?
5. THE EIGHT
Once the Seeker identifies the eight and their role in the Octavo, they have the opportunity to influence their significant event. Did you know who Emil’s eight were before he did? Who are your favorite characters among Emil’s eight? What are their flaws and strengths? Which of their actions reveal the most about them? What event do you believe comes as a turning point for that character? Could you identify the eight from a significant event in your own life? Has a person with only a peripheral connection to you ever played a part in a significant event?
Do the historical facts enhance your enjoyment of the story? After reading this book, are you more interested in the history of Sweden and the events of this period? What did you think about King Gustav III? Do you read historical fiction to be informed or entertained? Do you expect a work in this genre to be 100% accurate? Did the book change the history or did the history change the story?
In the 18th century, magic was broadly accepted as a part of life—astrology alchemy, divination, séances, conjuring the devil and more. Do you think many people today believe in various forms of magic? How many would admit their belief? What magic practices remain? Describe the influence of herbs and potions—both magical and medicinal—used in the novel. What about the use of herbs and potions—magical and medicinal—today?
8. LOVE & CONNECTION
How does the meaning of love and connection change for Emil over the course of the novel? Does it change for other characters? How did you feel about the conclusion of the novel? Does Emil find love and connection? What is the role of isolation (personal, cultural, geographical) in the novel? Do you think that the actions we take and the choices we make have a ripple effect? How far might that ripple spread?A READING GROUP GUIDE for
(Questions found on the author's webpage.)
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