|The book begins in Stockholm in the year 1791 and the octavo of the title is a form of divination by playing card through which a possible future is mapped out for a given individual by the selection of eight cards. The cards are not from a normal pack, each being a picture which will require interpretation. In this case, an octavo is provided for a civil servant, Emil Larsson, by one Mrs Sparrow, who is not Swedish but French. The author has provided illustrations of the relevant cards so that we may see them for ourselves.
Mrs Sparrow is not only French but an ardent monarchist determined that no harm shall befall Louis 16th or, for that matter, King Gustav III of Sweden. However, Gustav is intent on democratising Sweden to such an extent that a number of aristocrats feel imperilled and have begun to plot against him. There are several conspirators, but the one we meet in this book is Kristina Elizabet Louisa Uzanne, herself an aristocrat and referred to by all as The Uzanne. This lady has recently lost her husband but has now turned to power play in a big way.
The author has paid great attention to detail and not only with respect to playing cards. Fans feature in this book and, as a major part of the plot, they are also described in great detail. Likewise, what people are wearing and the surroundings they inhabit are fully realised.
None of these things, by themselves, would make this a good book if it were not for the characters, several of whom are memorable. The Uzanne will stop at nothing and sacrifice anyone to achieve her objectives, Mrs Sparrow is taken up with the theory and practice of the octavo and also with running a gambling house, and there are two other women of note, both of them young. One is Anna Maria Plomgren, whom you would not want to meet on a dark night – though the author, through her back story, gives some explanation for her cut-throat character. Then there is Johanna Bloom, who knows a thing or two about the apothecary’s art. Both of these young women are drawn into The Uzanne’s plans to their own great danger. As for the men we have Emil himself, Master Frederik Lind, and the master fan-maker Christian Nordén, who also has knowledge of octavos.
The narrative alternates between first and third person, the first person chapters being told by Emil Larsson. The book is carefully structured and many of the scenes have great dramatic impact.
The only reservation I have about this excellent novel is the machinery, of which there is a great deal: cards and what they look like, examples of octavos, descriptions of fans and their use. And each chapter is headed by a list of sources. Now it is true that when writing in the first person an author should be able to answer the question ‘how does my narrator know this?’ But when writing in the third the author knows everything and does not need to account for her knowledge to anyone.
Though it did not require so much heavy lifting as it has been given, this is a fine book by a talented writer.