Karen Engelmann’s debut novel is particularly interesting in that it’s set during the French Revolution—but not in France. As the book’s title suggests, it takes place in Stockholm, Sweden, between the years 1789 and 1792. The rising unrest in France is having ripple effects in other European countries, Sweden among them, and the characters get caught up in the intrigue between various political factions.
Engelmann does a great job of creating engaging characters: The Uzanne, a noblewoman whose obsession with fans hides a mastery of intrigue; Mrs. Sparrow, a fortune teller whose gifts might just be real; Fredrik Lind, a calligrapher and social climber; and many others. As the story progresses, the characters become ever more intertwined with each other, and the reader is kept guessing about how their various machinations will play out. The cast of characters is large, but each one is given distinctive traits and personalities, so the reader never gets confused as to who’s who.
The chapters of The Stockholm Octavo are brief—I was reading on a Kindle, but I’d guess that in hard copy, some chapters are only three or four pages long. In a few cases, the shortness of the chapters allowed us only a glimpse of a character’s actions, where I would have liked to see more progression of their story. Overall, though, the pacing was excellent. Most of the time when I finished a chapter, I wanted to immediately start into the next one.
Because the antagonist of the book is a fan collector and an important secondary character is a fan maker, the esoteric art and symbolism of eighteenth-century fans plays a major role. The descriptions of how the fans are made, the patterns on them, and the “language of the fan” used for surreptitious communication and seduction, all added an extra layer of interest to the story.
If you’re looking for a character-driven historical fiction novel, The Stockholm Octavo is highly recommended.