Book Review: A numbers game

Friday, October 26, 2012

"The Stockholm Octavo," by Karen Engelmann. Ecco, 432 pp. $26.99

The 18th-century Stockholm represented in Karen Engelmann's "The Stockholm Octavo" has often been compared to Venice, perhaps because "it is just as complex, just as grand, and just as mysterious as its sister to the south."

"The Stockholm Octavo" is certainly complex, grand, and mysterious in its own right.

Emil Larsson is a "gentleman of the Town," who rises quickly in society from an errand boy to a highly respected "sekretaire" in the Office of Customs and Excise, "a nearly impossible rise in station for one who came from nothing."

He finds his curse, though also his blessing, at the gaming rooms of Mrs. Sofia Sparrow. He isn't alone here: gambling is seen as "a pillar of the city's social architecture."

Mrs. Sparrow's talents stretch beyond her gaming abilities, however. She's a seer, prone at any moment of the day to riddle-like visions of the future.

Mrs. Sparrow's signature form of divination is a card-reading method called the Octavo; "her exacting method was inspired by her visions and revealed eight people that would bring about the event her vision conveyed, an event that would shepherd a transformation, a rebirth for the seeker."

Coincidentally, Emil has just learned that a requirement for his position as "sekretaire" is matrimony.

Mrs. Sparrow lays his Octavo over a period of eight nights, each night revealing a new person who will help lead him to his ultimate goal: to find a wife.

The only problem is that the Octavo shows the role of the person - the Companion, the Prisoner, the Teacher, the Courier, the Trickster, the Magpie, the Prize, and the Key - but it is up to Emil to determine which person around him fits each role.

At the same time, Mrs. Sparrow envisions the possible destruction of the French government, and she lays an Octavo of her own. Emil is her Courier, and she is his Key, though they share three others. Their combined Octavos form a perfect "8," and they must work together to fulfill both of their goals.

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