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Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud

The Stockholm Octavo: A Novel

The Stockholm Octavo - Karen Engelmann Rating: 4* of five The Book Description: 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. My Review: In eighteenth-century Stockholm, there were yuppies. Revolting Babbitty yuppies. I suppose every generation has them, call them what one likes: The conformist, comfort-seeking anti-rebels whose focus is wholly personal. Emil Larsson, the main character of this novel, is one. I got a lovely foreboding frisson that I was about to watch Emil Larsson take a mega-dive, which always gives me a happy. (Conservatives going down in flames makes me smile no matter when, who, or where.) And sure enough! Happy received! Book rated highly, one third of the way through.And then.Whoa NELLY! Quel surprise, tyro historical novelist Engelmann pulls the old switcheroo on me, and uses Tarot (a strong interest of mine since 1974) to winkle out of me the sympathy a decent human being must (reluctantly) feel for one's fellow human in the throes of personal growth and maturation. Apparently Sweden in the 1790s was a place undergoing the Culture Wars so dear (!) to our hearts today. The King, Gustav III, was the leading Liberal (!!) and his little brother the leading Conservative. The modern Swedish state owes its existence to Gustav! What a head-rush! Okay, so here's where we get Emil's growth...he's got, in the form of the Octavo laid for him by French émigré Sofia Sparrow with her trippy German Tarot cards:The spread is one of Mrs. Sparrow's own invention, using eight places to discover the people who will make it possible for the subject of the reading to realize in the world a vision had by Mrs. Sparrow: The Seeker goes on the questThe Companion is the sidekickThe Prisoner is a hostage to the SeekerThe Teacher doesn't need to be explainedThe Courier has access to places the Seeker's message needs to goThe Trickster also doesn't need explanationThe Magpie makes a lot of noise and helps or hinders the Seeker with itThe Prize is, well, the reward...adding someone to one's life for good or ill is a prize, after allThe Key is the person whose unique position and talent are the ONLY way for the Seeker to achieve the goal in the visionThe thing is...the vision comes all unbidden; the spread cannot be done absent a vision; and the Seeker must commit to realizing the vision or the bad luck is dire. In the case of this vision, the consequences of failure or misinterpretation are no less than actual, bleeding Civil War and revolution for the progressive Swedish monarchy. Emil, of course, sees the vision in terms of his desire to marry a rich girl so he can keep his place in the Town's hierarchy. Mrs. Sparrow, to her credit, never bats him one upside the head to force him into seeing things outside himself; Life does that for her, as one burdened with the horrible gift of the Sight well knows it will.Set all of this in a place and at a time when the French Revolution has all the world on edge, and the King of a smallish country is acting most bizarrely in favor of the commonfolk, and the Enlightenment has lit the torches of scientific understanding of the Universe (much to the enduring disgust of the various churches), and I was hooked from the get-go.But then Engelmann makes the shift from “mmm nice” to “oh yes indeed! Nice!” by creating the repulsive Emil Larsson and growing him into a man of some values. I can't say I'd ever hand him my wallet and come back in a year expecting the money all to be there. But I would allow him to watch over my debauched daughter. (Not you, sweetiedarling, my IMAGINARY debauched daughter.) He'd protect someone weaker than himself, against his natural leanings. He's a rotten man, made into his best self. Which is, frankly, none too good.And Sweden...well! Who knew they had history there too! If I ever thought about Sweden before this, it went sort of like “IKEA Volvo Electrolux SAAB ABBA” and from there into reverie about the Swede I dated once (only the second time in my life I've had to turn my face up to be kissed, an agreeable sensation, I see why girls like it, there's a lamentable shortage of gay guys over 6ft6in tall). Turns out the stakes were very high there in those days...Gustav III was the prime mover behind a plan to rescue Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette that ended in the Varennes capture and their eventual executions. Plus the aforementioned Swedish revolution that needed forestalling.All in all, my favorite kind of read: Characters doing exciting and interesting things, growing as humans, illuminating history and human nature in ways I'd never given a thought to, and using Tarot to do it! I was extra-special pleased by the beauty of the book, from lovely turquoise jacket to handsomely illustrated endsheets to the in-text illustrations of the Tarot cards and spread. So satisfying.Now for the things that did not please me near so much: Speechifying. The characters are prone to it. It's a first-novel issue, I feel sure, because the nature of the speechifying was appropriate to the situations in which the characters made the speeches. It takes time to learn what other means there are to convey some, though never all, of this information outside the speech. It's a flaw nonetheless. A half-star disappeared about p94-96 because of the issue.Organizationally, the Octavo was an interesting experiment. Part of the point is that it must be laid out over eight successive nights, a card a night. No reason is asserted for this, and it causes some pacing problems: Eight nights? The events of an entire novel can last less than that and be satisfying; but to front-load the import of the story and still make us drag through eight days is not entirely wise. It worked only partially for me, and I suspect largely due to my deep interest in Tarot. It could cause Backstory Fatigue Syndrome in some pace-sensitive readers.And lastly, The Fan. I knew next to nothing about the cult and language of fans among Enlightenment-era noble ladies. I know more now, and it was really fascinating, but it ended up feeling very much like something the author wanted me to know, even though she wove it into the story in as deft a way as one could wish. The effect of The Fan on the story is quite exciting, don't mistake me, but...a little less? A lot more, like making The Fan and not the Tarot central to the book? I don't know, somehow the fan thing made itself obtrusive and I was taken out of the story when the blasted things showed up.I hope, though, that my warblings of pleasure about the experience of reading the book will cause you to plunk down the old spondulix and support Ecco Press and Engelmann in their gamble that there is still an audience for solidly made, intriguing, fun-to-read fiction about times and places not our own.*Animal sensitivity note: Passages in this book won't sit well with those readers. Probably best to avoid.*