Sunday, December 23, 2012

The Stockholm Octavo is completely entertaining and totally unexpected

The Stockholm Octavo is completely entertaining and totally unexpected

Karen Engelman’s The Stockholm Octavo (Nov 2012, Ecco/Harper Collins) is completely entertaining and totally unexpected. Not only is it set in 1791 in Stockholm but the plot hinges on Cartomancy, a form of divination using cards. This is not Tarot. The Octavo is a construct with its own images and meanings, involving Masonic metaphysics. It is crucial to the fate of our hero, the Seeker Emil Lasson.

When Emil first goes to the gaming salon of Mrs. Sophia Sparrow, there are rumbles of the revolution in France and the revolt of aristocratic “patriots” against Sweden’s populist king, but the people in her comfortable rooms are more interested in gambling. There are also those seeking Mrs. Sparrow’s gifts as a seer. And when the vision comes to her, she must communicate it. 

That first night, she sees in Emil’s hand a good future in cards. And his dexterity at the gaming table is such that he becomes her partner and eventually earns enough to buy his red cloak, the position as Sekretaire in the customs house. This both elevates his social status and gives him financial security. He’s a happy man about town, until his Superior demands that he marry or lose his position.

Frantic to find a bride, Emil woos the wine merchant’s daughter, Carlotta. He's wildly attracted to her of the " honey colored hair," whose skin is like a “warm peach.”  But he has no idea  if she will accept him. When Mrs. Sparrow has a golden vision of “Love and connection” and offers to do The Octavo for him, Emil is eager for the chance.

She lays a card a visit over a period of weeks, until all eight are revealed. Each represents a pivotal guide that will lead him toward his goal. The companion, the prisoner, the teacher, the courier, the trickster, the magpie, the prize, are revealed one by one. Emil’s task is to tease out their meaning and identify their role in his life. At stake is his future and, as is revealed, that of Sweden. 

Emil analyzes the rich and powerful Uzanne, manipulative widow of a “patriot,” the master fan maker Christian, his lovely French wife, Margot, and their fop salesman. There is the beautiful short tempered daughter of Opera workers, a cross-dressing calligrapher, and the Uzanne’s mysterious protégé, the apothecaire Joanna Bloom. In this multi-viewpoint novel, you also experience Joanna's seduction by the beauty and luxury, the rich fabrics, colors and tastes of the Uzanne's world. 

Fans, symbolic and seductive, lethal and enchanted, are also reveletory in the Octavo. When Mrs. Sparrow and The Uzanne square off at the gaming table, the prize is the Uzanne's irreplaceable fan. The two women are profound opponents. Both are accomplished at the tables and connoisseurs of fans. The difference is Uzanne uses hers as a weapon of conquest and the Sparrow understands it as a magical object. She wants to protect her king, while the Uzanne seeks triumph at any cost.

That she loses her fan at the table is a significant blow. Yet the Uzanne’s plotting is relentless and it involves her control of Joanna Bloom. Formerly Johanna Grey, she, like Emil, fled a farm for a new identity in the town. With her brilliant mind and fierce spirit is she Emil’s destiny or is it the exiled Carlotta? And what effect can Emil have on outcomes, when the aristocrats call the shots?

Emil discovers the formidable Uzanne is his Companion in the Octavo, the one he follows. She is also his enemy. The lines of good and evil blur, when he realizes Joanna's role in the Uzanne's manipulations and later doubts Mrs. Sparrow. Is she a seer or charlatan and is her Octavo only a game?  When Christian supplies the Masonic link, the mathematical mystery that connects all the persons and events, his doubts lessen. And he quickly becomes caught up in unfolding events.

Joanna is a real prisoner he must rescue at a Masked Ball the Uzanne throws, while he and Mrs. Sparrow work desperately against the forces that threaten Stockholm. Do they triumph in the end? And does Emil find “golden love and connection”? 

In this delightfully earth bound occult novel, the main performer  is Stockholm, where character and social classes are fluid, the swipe of a fan, the inflection of a voice, the cut of a jacket signify layers of meaning. Success, love, joy are Emil’s if he defines his eight. You need to read this delightful book. The meaning of the cards and his life are an enigma, I wouldn’t dare give away.