Our lives are infinitely influenced by others, and this reverberation, Karen Engelmann suggests in her debut novel, "The Stockholm Octavo," echoes the structure of the universe. Like Plato, Pythagoras and Da Vinci, Engelmann explores the Divine Geometry here, but she does so not through art or mathematics, but through character interaction. In this story, disparate characters cross paths, but if they pay attention, Engelmann suggests, they can affect both the politics of Sweden and their personal destinies.
Set during the reign of King Gustav III, the novel blends political intrigue, fortune-telling, alchemy, skullduggery, high treason and love. The plot is so compelling it will keep you up at night, and the characters so well crafted you will gladly follow them through the streets and alleys of 18th-century Stockholm.
Emil Larsson is a nondescript government employee, a cold fish who wants only nice clothes, good liquor and one-night stands. He is average looking, mildly ambitious and proud of his ability to blend into a crowd. When Sofia Sparrow, practitioner of a form of fortune-telling called the Octavo, tells Emil that she foresees his destiny, he is called to be more attentive to his surroundings, particularly the people in his life. For eight nights Sparrow unveils Emil's Octavo: eight cards, each representing a person Emil either knows or will meet. "Think of it as destiny, partnering with free will," she tells him, for if Emil can identify the people in the cards, he will find love and connection.
As Emil begins his quest, the intrigue is further heightened when Sparrow reveals that her own Octavo -- which is wrapped up in the king's -- and Emil's "fit together like ... cogs in a great clock." Together, Emil and Sparrow seek to discover where their Octavos overlap and how they might save Gustav.
In the political landscape of the novel, Stockholm is divided into Royalists, loyal to King Gustav, and Patriots, who want to restore power to the nobles. Emil and Sparrow hope to stop a scheming Patriot known as the Uzanne. The Uzanne is the Cruella De Vil of the novel, an evilly elegant woman who trains girls from town to become women skilled in the art of seduction through the use of hand-held folding fans. These fans -- unique to their owners and artfully crafted on geometric principals -- become weapons for the Uzanne's protégés, and not just to attract men, but also to assassinate a king.
As tension builds, Emil meets fascinating people, finds love and begins to change. In seeking to identify his "eight," Emil is attentive to the world and, consequently, becomes a better human being.
This is a brilliant novel of overlapping plots and intersecting characters. Here divination and the Divine Geometry intersect with the fate of a nation, and a faceless government official aligns himself with a clairvoyant, a cross-dressing calligrapher, a shrewd apothecary, a clueless fop, an evil temptress and a tenderhearted artist. The result is a pleasurable read and an impressive debut.
Christine Brunkhorst is a Minneapolis writer and reviewer.