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Originally published Sunday, December 2, 2012 at 5:32 AM

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‘The Stockholm Octavo’: Fortune unfolds in a pack of eight cards

Karen Engelmann’s “The Stockholm Octavo” tells the story of a Swedish man who sees his fortune foretold in a mysterious set of eight cards called the Octavo. Engelmann will appear Thursday, Dec. 6, at Seattle’s University Book Store.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Karen Engelmann

The author of “The Stockholm Octavo” will appear at 7 p.m. Thursday at Seattle’s University Book Store; free (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).

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‘The Stockholm Octavo’ by Karen Engelmann

Ecco, 416 pp., $26.99

In Karen Engelmann’s debut novel, “The Stockholm Octavo,” history is made through the turn of a slender playing card, and with the breeze of a silken fan’s demure wave. Set in late 18th-century Stockholm, during a time of great political change across Europe, it’s a complex, meticulously woven tale centering on a man of no particular importance.

Emil Larsson, a sekretaire in the local customs office, is a confirmed bachelor and contented drinker – until the proprietress of his favorite gaming lounge, Mrs. Sparrow, one day shows him an Octavo (a form of divination unique to her, we’re told). Like tarot, the Octavo uses cards to tell a fortune: in this case, eight cards from an ancient deck, symbolizing eight people who will bring about a foretold event of “love and connection” for Larsson, if he can find them.

Starting things off with a list of characters and an intricate timeline of Sweden and France’s political activity of the era, Engelmann frames her narrative as a report compiled by Larsson, who observed and experienced much of the story and has sought out witnesses for moments at which he wasn’t present. These include The Uzanne, a baroness obsessed with the language of fans and with the King’s would-be usurper, Duke Karl; Johanna Grey, a young master apothecary who fled to the city to escape an arranged marriage; the Nordéns, a fan-making family whose shop is “so French you can smell the perfume two streets away”; the mysterious Mrs. Sparrow; a cross-dressing calligrapher; the enlightened King Gustav III; and others entwined in the tapestry. As Larsson searches for his own fortune and for those who might bring it about, political change is in the wind; the book, unfolding over several years, captures both history and fantasy.

Though undeniably ambitious, “The Stockholm Octavo” is one of those books you admire more than you enjoy; its careful storytelling doesn’t quite sweep the reader into its long-ago world. (Engelmann is an American writer who spent eight years living and working in Sweden; her book was written in English, but occasionally has the slightly remote, formal quality of a translation.) But it’s filled with original, impressive touches: the cards themselves, an entrancing 16th-century deck reproduced in the book; the cartomancy sketches of the Octavo; the way the characters seem to revolve around each other like an intricate, courtly dance; the bits of description – the icy-cold rooms, the glittering chandeliers with candles dripping wax onto the floor below – of a time long gone.

Most intriguing is this book’s loving descriptions of fans (each referred to as “she” by the characters, as if acknowledging their personalities) and what the proper usage of them can convey. The Uzanne has a favorite fan called Cassiopeia, and the two “fit together like lovers on a too-small settee, knowing just how to move for maximum effect.” A fanmaker tells us of the geometry of his art; a young woman, scoffing at mathematics, notes that the purpose of the fan is “entrapment.” Late in the book, a fan is broken — Larsson “heard the snap of sticks underfoot and watched as her face was torn by a sharp red heel” – and it’s like a character’s death; as with the figures of history, it speaks no more.

Moira Macdonald is the movie critic for The Seattle Times.

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