Tarot aficionados, get ready to pounce! This intriguing historical novel revolves around a mysterious card spread called the Octavo. The central character is Emil Larsson, a customs officer. His boss demands that he get married and threatens to fire him if he fails. Emil befriends Mrs. Sofia Sparrow, the proprietress of a gambling salon and a card reader. She offers to do a reading for him, but Emil must swear to complete the Octavo spread and then follow it through to its completion. He must identify the eight people described by the cards to achieve his promised destiny of “love and connection.”

The book's events take place in Stockholm, Sweden in the late 1780s and early 1790s. Sweden and France are on the verge of political revolutions. King Gustav III plans to give commoners more power in the government. His plan is opposed by his brother Duke Karl and a group of hostile aristocrats. Mrs. Sparrow is an ardent royalist and a true friend to King Gustav. Her Octavo overlaps with Emil's, so their destinies are intertwined. As he pursues his outcome of love, Sparrow pursues her goal of protecting King Gustav so he can rescue the imprisoned King Louis XIV of France.

As history buffs may recall, during the summer of 1791 the attempted rescue of the French royal family made by the Swedish Count Axel von Ferson failed. King Gustav was poised to make a second rescue attempt in 1792. A widowed Swedish aristocrat, Baroness Kristina Uzanne, has a plan of her own to eliminate King Gustav so Duke Karl can take the throne. She is furious that her political machinations are scorned by military partisans. Her plans revolve around a special fan named “Cassiopeia.” The author provides details about the manufacture and language of fans, along with explanations of the role of fans as an accessory for courtship and intrigue. The fine art of handling fans corresponds to handling cards for gambling and divination. Baroness Uzanne hires two young women with complementary skills and coaches a cadre of unmarried aristocratic debutantes in the art of fans to achieve her twisted ambitions. 

The plot works up to a crisis at a masked ball. The people of Emil's Octavo are involved in the climax, both for good and for destruction. Emil's life and that of Mrs. Sparrow are greatly transformed in the aftermath.

The author's engaging writing and clever use of details about cards and fans fuels the book's intrigues. The method for performing the strict requirements of the Octavo spread are described in detail. The impact of the number 8 and it's relationship to sacred geometry and architecture are discussed by various characters. By accepting the obligation of the Octavo, Emil shifts from a subordinate observer to an active participant. It empowers him to take risks, exercise his free will, and make appropriate choices and alliances. The reader must guess who fulfills the roles of the Stockholm Octavo through the intricate moves and counter-moves of the book's characters.

Highly recommended for fans of tarot and cartomancy!

~review by Elizabeth Hazel

Author: Karen Engelmann
Ecco/HarperCollins, 2012
416 pg, $16.99 hb.