Historical fiction is a perfect winter indulgence. True, Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall was a book for all seasons, but more typical genre fare — rich and mildly intoxicating — may best be enjoyed on long, cold nights. Especially historical fiction set in 18th-century Sweden, a time and a place rendered exotic by furs and velvets, as well as by its lack of familiarity. Hailed as the Venice of the north, when King Gustav III's relatively enlightened rule made the Baltic city shine, the Stockholm of 1789 that we find in The Stockholm Octavo more closely resembles Paris, both in its excesses and its rumblings of revolution.
Debut novelist Karen Engelmann is no Mantel, but she has a deft hand with her history, plopping her antihero in the midst of some very real intrigues. Her Emil Larsson, a priggish bureaucrat, is motivated by his quest for the shallowest sort of "love and connection." But when his skill as a gambler gives him an entrée into the salon of fortune-teller Mrs. Sparrow, he finds the cards may have a greater purpose for him. She lays out his Octavo — a tarot-like reading that will determine his fate — but it is up to him to determine who among the rebels, seductresses, and refugees around him personify each role. As he tries to decipher the riddles, sedition both at home and abroad begins to influence his own limited goals — and the stakes grow higher.
With a plot that loosely follows the cards, readers will find themselves caught up, wondering which bystander represents the Prize, which the Prisoner, and which the shapeshifting Trickster. Reminiscent of Katherine Neville's masterful The Eight, which used chess rather than cards, The Stockholm Octavo plays history as a setting for mystery, magic, and a touch of romance. All good things on a cold night.
KAREN ENGELMANN :: Harvard Coop, 1400 Mass Ave, Cambridge : December 11 @ 7 pm :: 617.499.2000 :: Brookline Booksmith, 279 Harvard St, Brookline :: December 12 @ 7 pm :: 617.566.6660 or brooklinebooksmith.com
THE STOCKHOLM OCTAVO BY KAREN ENGELMANN :: ECCO :: 432 PAGES :: $26.99
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