Book Reviews

The Stockholm Octavo, by Karen Engelmann


Author: Karen Engelmann
Publisher: Ecco, 2012
ISBN: 9780061995347
Genre: Historical Fiction


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 parlour, 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.


THE STOCKHOLM OCTAVO is a wonderfully written historical thriller full of murder, intrigue, fans—and yes, I mean those kind of fans. Fans women use to use to fan themselves with, and more, with a deft hand, secretly signal to friends and lovers—and yes, a dash of romance. A story that is as much about cartomancy decked out with an unusual cast of characters, ‘The Eight,’ who Emil Larsson must find in order to achieve his destiny.

Set in Stockholm, Sweden, at the end of the eighteenth-century, we find out Larsson’s destiny isn’t his own, it’s tied up with that of the King of Sweden. All of which is the author’s way of opening up the various levels of society represented in the story, from seedy gaming houses and tap rooms, to the lofty levels of the government and royal palace and sumptuous world of Gustav III. Revolution is brewing on many levels, as the world in which Larsson finds himself, is undergoing tumultuous change.

Engelmann’s writing is fluid, graceful, and wonderfully nuanced. And sucks the reader into the story where the descriptive prose conjure locations, activities and conversations that evoke this world, perfectly. This is not by any means a fast, action-packed book, but a slowly nuanced complex story told from a number of POV, centred around Emil Larsson. A story that paints a richly detailed world of manners, morals, and a belief a person can rise above the station they’re dealt in life.

An enjoyable, immersive experience. Highly recommended.

NOTE: This book review was first published on Book Blurb. But I wanted to repost it here because, it’s one of my all-time favourite reads. And you, what are some of yours?


  1. I do like a good historical novel, Alex. And that’s a part of Swedish history that I don’t know as well as perhaps I ought to know. Hmm…..intriguing! I’m really glad you enjoyed it.

    • Alex says

      It really is a fascinating period, Margot, and I’m sure you would live this book as much as I do. There is murder, and elements of at least two mysteries, as well as the fun historical aspects. And it’s jam packed with interesting little details. And Mrs. Sparrow, herself, was an intriguing character. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

  2. I had to look up what “cartomancy” means because I’d never heard that term. Honestly, I’m more interested in all these fans you mentioned and how they play a role in the story (or if they’re simply a costume reminder of the time period). You asked what some of our all-time favorite reads are. I love Cruddy by Lynda Barry, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Dietland by Sarai Walker. When I was a child, I loved The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson. They’re all quite different books!

  3. La Blonde says

    Oh, don’t worry, I only had a vague idea. If the author had said Tarot cards, I would have clicked, as it was, I took my cue from the beautiful cover art. 😀

    Fans do play quite an intriguing part of the upper class social life, in that the author explains how fans were used as a communications device (long before cell phones!) and how the ladies used them to send messages. It’s all very fascinating.

    Great choices of favourite books, and yes, all very different to say the least. 😀

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