The Stockholm Octavo (Karen Engelmann)

Posted: December 19, 2014 in fiction
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

In the United States, our understanding of Scandinavian history is pretty wretched. There were Vikings, also known as Norsemen, but we don’t really understand who they were or where they came from (formerly peaceful traders until the Christians blackballed them for being pagan). This is really shameful, because since the Vikings colonized most of Europe, we’re probably all related to them, and because the greatest hero in English literature, Beowulf, was Swedish. That’s why it took him so long to get to Heorot from Geatland – Geatland is in Sweden.

This book takes place in Stockholm, mostly in 1791 and 1792. King Gustav is trying to save Louis XVI from the revolutionaries in France, but his troubled relationship with the nobles of his own country lead to his assassination. In part, this is a novel about the world ending; some people try to maintain things as they are, others try to shape the new world that’s coming. I don’t think the world will ever really end; people always keep on living, even if the political situation changes dramatically. At least, the world won’t end until the sun expands and swallows the inner planets on its way to exploding in a fiery death.

This is a novel of women’s power. The main characters focus on traditional expressions of women’s wisdom: herb lore for healing and poisoning, divination and the occult, and fashion accessories and the manipulation of powerful men. Johanna Grey is in Stockholm running from an unwanted marriage set up by her excessively Christian parents. She starts as a barmaid, but becomes companion and pharmacist to the most powerful woman in town. She focuses on inhalants that induce sleep, but she’s a good girl so she’s uncomfortable when her boss makes her work on poisons. Mrs Sparrow runs a gambling house where she sometimes reads tarot cards or sees prophetic visions for her clients, including King Gustav and his brother Duke Karl. More on her reading anon. The Uzanne is a widowed baroness who is captivated by fans. She has an enormous collection, and believes that they have magical properties. You can read into this as much or as little as you like. The fans are beautiful works of art, regardless, and they can be very useful props in flirtation and seduction. The Uzanne establishes a school for teaching the use of the fan, but it’s really a front for her indoctrination of the girls with her political views and training them to manipulate men, not only for love, but for politics as well.

First-person narrator Emil Larsson is one of the best players at Mrs Sparrow’s establishment. They become friends, and she finds him useful in dealing with unwanted guests. He’s no bouncer; it’s just that no one likes losing all the time, and there are some methods of making someone lose at cards that also involve making him lose face. One day she has a vision for him, so she does an octavo reading. This is an invention of the author; it uses a special deck instead of the standard tarot, and points to eight people in the Seeker’s life that will influence him for good or ill. This first part is kind of slow: she only draws one card a night for eight nights, and he spends all this time mooning about some girl who doesn’t really care about him and isn’t in his octavo anyway. As he cultivates his octavo, he gets drawn away from his personal search for love and into the complicated schemes either to protect the king or to kill him.

A few years ago I made a break with the Christian church I had been involved in my entire life, and in the time since then I’ve been working on reading tarot. These cards were originally used for a popular card game in the Renaissance, but in the eighteenth century people started using them for divination, and now the occult is an American thing, and people still sometimes play the game in Europe. I don’t really believe in divination, any more than I do in prayer, but I find it comforting in the same way. It’s a bit like having a conversation with my subconscious, the same as in dreams. I look at symbols and try to interpret them. If it’s something important, I’ll read cards over the same subject for a few days and look for patterns. I think that it’s my subconscious mind that determines the outcome of events in my life, managing how well I perform at different tasks and which opportunities I create, so getting some information from it is generally useful. Card reading is important in The Stockholm Octavo, but as with the fans, is there any prophetic magic in it or are events shaped by people’s response to its self-fulfilling prophecies? In my own life, I’ve decided that the distinction isn’t a useful one. It doesn’t matter whether an event is a random occurrence or part of a divine plan; what matters is what does happen, and how I’m going to respond to it.

This may seem an odd complaint to make, but for a novel about women and women’s power, it suffers from a bizarre lack of lesbians. There’s one very brief moment when one straight woman flirts with another for shock value, but there’s no romantic love between women. Even our marriage-resister is just waiting for the right man to come along. The only LGBT connection is a man who occasionally dresses in women’s clothing, with his wife’s approval.

The publisher made a comparison with The Night Circus, but no. Just, no. Steampunk magical circus or political intrigues during the Reign of Terror, for me there is no question. The Night Circus is about using magic to make people happy, and the struggle is between people who eventually love each other. The Stockholm Octavo is about using magic to make people powerful, and the struggle is between people who absolutely hate each other. A few of them die; by the end, there’s poison everywhere. Emil leaves the town that he loves to find a woman he loves, and the story ends with possibility instead of fulfillment.

 

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