The year is 1791, and change is in the air. In country after country, populations rise up against the idea of being ruled by the nobility. Sweden is no different. King Gustav is popular, but some of his political moves are creating dissent. He has given rights to the common man, and while they eagerly accept, those who have been in power due to their birth are definitely opposed. Soon
there are two camps, and individuals who never thought much about politics must decide which camp they belong to.
One is these individuals is Emil Larsson. He has fought his way up to become a bureaucrat in the Customs Office, a position that offers the potential for outside income. He is a man about town, seen frequently in the company of the card players at the town’s premier gaming house, that of Mrs. Sparrow. When Emil is forced to consider marriage by his boss, who wants to see his employees married, he seeks Mrs. Sparrow’s help. She introduces him to a method of determining his fate he had never heard of: The Octavo. The Octavo is a set of eight positions that each player must fill with the individuals around himself. When the players are in place, their decisions and moves will impact the seeker’s fate, and often the fate of others. Emil’s Octavo soon has him right in the middle of the conflict between the opponents and the supporters of King Gustav.
Engelmann's novel is rife with other interesting characters. The Uzanne is a woman who is the social arbitrator of Stockholm society.
A debutante cannot hope to advance without her approval. The Uzanne uses a collection of fans to communicate her approval and influence
to those around her. Johanna Gray is one of her protégées, a young woman who has made her way to Stockholm to seek her fortune and who has extensive knowledge of potions. There are the fan creators, newly arrived from France, and the man who is the only one the nobility trusts to create their invitations and other printed material. There are various nobles, some of whom are firmly under the Uzanne’s influence, and others who oppose her. Which side will win the battle to determine the fate of Stockholm’s government and place in the world going forward?
Karen Engelmann has created an entrancing collection of characters and a story that will capture the reader
with alliances and betrayals, plots and counterplots, gambling, fights for social position, and maneuvering for rewards that would rival any moves made on a battlefield. The plot is delightfully complex, the resolution a satisfying ending that ties together all disparate threads. The history behind the Octavo is fascinating, and the slice of life that was Stockholm at this critical time is well-researched and portrayed.
Recommended for readers of historical or literary fiction.