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Review: The Stockholm Octavo, Karen Engelmann

the stockholm octavoEmil Larsson is a Swedish tax inspector of sorts at the close of the 18th century, responsible for ensuring that shipping to and from Stockholm’s port is run properly. A frequent gambler and relatively happy singleton, he is dismayed when his employer demands that he acquire a wife in order to appear more respectable. While waiting to get his own cards read in order to help him find this wife, Larsson discovers that Mrs Sparrow, who runs his favorite gaming house, is actually very close to the Swedish king, and that his own fortune is a small part of the overall scheme taking control of Swedish politics.

Those who have read about the French Revolution may recognize that this time period was dramatic for Sweden, too; Count Axel von Fersen, one of Marie Antoinette’s rumored lovers and a key component in their failed escape plan, was Swedish and closely connected to the royal family there. France’s royal family aren’t the only ones in danger, as Sweden’s monarchy is fragile too, with a revolution brewing. Framed through this series of octavos, Emil has to work out the eight influential people around him and understand just how those people influence others in order to help change the fate of the Swedish nation – if he possibly can.

I wasn’t really sure about this book while I was reading it and I’m still not really sure about it as I’m reviewing it. Just looking at it heightens expectations; the British hardcover version of the book is truly beautiful, an elegant hardcover without a dust jacket and with a solid feel to the pages. The story is told through alternating viewpoints and as a result I found it surprisingly difficult to get at all interested in any of the characters, even Emil. He, for one, seems very mercenary and self-serving; once told he has to get married, he just chooses pretty girls without making any real attempt to get to know them or relate to them. I don’t think I’m someone who really needs to fall in love with a character in order to enjoy a book, but I certainly think it would have helped this one.

In addition, it’s a book that starts out slowly and really needs an initial element to help draw readers in. Purported to be a mix of romance, history, intrigue, and card-playing, it sounds more exciting than it actually is. There were some parts I found fascinating; the sections around fan-making and the fan language, for instance, and the little bits of history about the Swedish royal family and the history. The book is well written and very descriptive, bringing this frostier part of the world to life; but I felt while I was reading that there was something missing, a spark that would bring it all together and move this from being a good book into a great one.

A book I’d probably hesitate to recommend to any but a fellow historical fiction reader, The Stockholm Octavo is a decent read but not one that lives up to its promise, for me at least.

I am an Amazon Associate. I received this book for free for review.

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