The Stockholm Octavo

Photo: Philip Friedman/Studio D

16 of 16
The Stockholm Octavo
432 pages; Ecco
Who knew 18th-century Sweden could be so much fun? Karen Engelmann's debut novel, The Stockholm Octavo, is a juicy page-turner about the last years of King Gustav III's reign. Stockholm in the 1790s is a sophisticated cultural center that also offers less-refined attractions, like the brothels and gaming houses man-about-town Emil Larsson enjoys when he's not ferreting out contraband for the Office of Customs and Excise. When Emil's boss orders him to find a wife, he turns to Mrs. Sparrow, the enigmatic seer who runs his favorite gaming establishment. She tells him she has a vision of "love and connection" for Emil and reads his future using the Octavo, a method based on the magical properties of the number eight. "We are ruled by numbers," she tells him before dealing cards to represent the eight crucial influencers—teacher, companion, prisoner, magpie, courier, trickster, prize, key—he must identify in his life. Meanwhile, following her own Octavo, Mrs. Sparrow enlists her "courier," who happens to be Emil, to foil seditious aristocrats plotting to overthrow King Gustav. Politics and personal destiny collide as the members of Emil's Octavo reveal themselves—among them a vengeful widow with unique seductive powers and a pretty apothecary who may not be above poisoning to keep her freedom. Their overlapping Octavos create a fanciful puzzle of a plot, while Engelmann's intellectually playful take on the mathematics of love and power proves irresistible.
— Liza Nelson