By Karen Engelmann.
This is an interesting book, but it's not what you'd expect from reading the back of it. I am a card-loving dork, and a tarot/divination dork in particular, and on that level it's a fascinating setup. (I think I shall blog about the Octavo layout on another one of my blogs later.) And if you're a history nut, this is probably a book that is right up your alley. However, I would like to say to the folks that aren't totally up on the knowledge about what was happening in Sweden from 1789-1793....well, I would recommend that you NOT read the handy-dandy timeline that starts out the book. I say this as someone who is normally a total spoiler whore: it will mostly ruin the suspense/investment in the plot for you to read where this book is going. The timeline doesn't 100% spoil the plot for you because the author has enough leeway to work in the shadows enough to surprise you with hidden plot details, but I actively wished I hadn't known throughout the read of the book where it was going. That's the joys of writing a historical novel that takes place in real history, I guess.
A note on the formatting: this book is written after the main events of the novel. Most of it is from the narrator Emil's point of view, but he decided to try to make it as cohesive of a tale as possible by interviewing folks involved in/witnessing the events of the book afterwards, and he writes a fair number of chapters from other people's points of view. I didn't find this to be particularly bothersome or anything, but other folks seem to have found it strange in book reviews. Emil helpfully notes who he interviewed about things as well.
Emil Larsson is a secretaire (think customs official) in Stockholm, Sweden, always referred to as The Town, He's a loner, a man about town, a card player, and a man who takes great delight in his position and his shiny red cape. He's never been interested in marriage before, but his boss decides that he's going to make it mandatory that all secretaires get married, and Emil's the only one who doesn't even have a girlfriend. Emil has a psychic friend, Sofia Sparrow, who has a vision of him getting "love and connection." To lay out the situation for him, she does him an elaborate tarot* layout she calls the Octavo. It identifies 8 people who will be intertwined in Emil's life and search for a lady love, and he'll have to identify who in his world fits each slot. Mrs. Sparrow also does one for herself, which is about how she wants to save her royal friend Gustav's life. She figures out that her octavo and Emil's fit together and have some of the same people in them.
* note: Mrs. Sparrow's tarot deck is a bit different from the usual Rider-Waite variety, but you can pretty much figure out which cards mean what. And the exact deck she uses is mentioned somewhere, I just forget what it was.
The plot mostly revolves around Mrs. Sparrow's octavo/life goal in saving Gustav more than it does Emil's love life. The primary villain of the plot is the Uzanne, a noblewoman and the expert in the language of fans. She's backing Gustav's brother Karl for becoming ruler (and so she can be First Mistress), and is engineering a plan to kill Gustav with a powdered poisoned fan. To this end, she takes on a protegee, apothecaire Johanna Grey, who's provided to her by Town calligrapher/ally Fredrik Lind. Johanna's fleeing a horrible arranged marriage and is happy to be taken on, but as things go on, she's more and more creeped out at the Uzanne's demands. The Uzanne's fan prodigy, Anna Maria, on the other hand, is more into this sort of thing--plus she starts dating the brother of The Town's premier fanmaker, Christian Norden. Emil becomes friends with Christian's French wife, Margot, who's a nice lady. Lars the brother, on the other hand, is a blabbermouth whose loose lips sink ships.
For some dumbass reason, the Uzanne bets her favorite fan, Cassiopeia, in a card game. Mrs. Sparrow makes damn sure she wins it in the game (with Emil's help) and then sends it off to the Nordens to have the beading altered on it--some kind of magical spell reason, I guess? I wasn't sure what that did for it. Anyway, the Uzanne spends the rest of the book throwing shit fits about how her fan was "stolen" and keeps trying to get it back, and eventually Emil is more or less dragged into being the guy who will get her fan back. Ironically, Mrs. Sparrow planned on giving the fan back after its alteration, and she has Emil get it back when he buys a fan for his future fiancee. The Nordens are hired to make a bunch of similar fans for all of the Uzanne's teenaged protegees from fan class, and everything is all to culminate at a masked ball....
I liked the story in general. The characters are interesting and scheming and manipulative in creative ways. Everyone has a standout personality and has their role(s) to play in the upcoming drama, and I liked seeing how everyone fit into the Octavo. I've mentioned that the author had to work "in the shadows" for some of the later plot developments, and I think she makes that work well under the circumstances. I especially loved (and was even shocked by!) something Emil does at the end, very subtly. The callback that happens then is also quite on the nose. And the tarot aspects of are definitely neat to me.
What doesn't work so well:
(a) Emil comes off as a callow dude early on. I am happy to report that he comes into depth and caring for others as the story goes on. However...this ain't a romance, despite the supposed point of the book being one. Emil pretty much jumps at any attractive single female within his range throughout the book--even at the end. (Emil isn't the sort that can maintain platonic friendship well, apparently.) Honestly, I think he'll just marry anyone if he can ever get one to say yes. Even with the woman that we're supposed to assume is the winner, I don't know...I can't say I felt like there was much romance, love, connection, what have you going on there beyond the drama of the plot. They don't spend much time together getting to know each other. I don't even know if the lady in question loves Emil back or if she is just fond of him for helping her out. I guess Emil's choice at the end of the book is supposed to show growth, but mostly I just wonder how that's going to play out since I don't even know if it's all that mutual. Good luck to you, buddy.
(b) I.....had issues on some level with the plot of the book being all about fans. Not only are they a bit hard for someone reading it in 2013 to relate to, it's...well, related to what actually went down in history..... argh, I really can't comment without spoiling. Let's just say that I wish this book was a little more fictionalized and didn't go down in the way that history said and I found it kind of frustrating that for all of the buildup....things couldn't go as awesomely as they could have. And Mrs. Sparrow disappears for a part of the book, and when she returns...I don't know, I guess I expected a bigger reaction from her about how things went? The ending mostly kind of feels like a fizzle.
(c) And I'll be honest with you: this isn't a book for everyone. A lot of people will find it slow going or not to their taste in the style.If you're a history buff or a card buff or someone who's into court intrigues, sure, but everyone else? Maybe not.
I'll give it three and a half stars overall. It's cool for what it is and if you are into that sort of thing, but a few things don't quite pan out as you might wish or expect, and that's a ibt of a buzzkill to me.