Reading the Cards: Novels that Play with Tarot

Earlier this week, Shannon Page's The Empress and The Moon came out, concluding her "Nightcraft Quartet." She wrote an excellent piece about her use of tarot to write a pivotal scene in the novel for John Scalzi's blog. As her editor, I pushed for Shannon to use the tarot theme as much as possible—I remember writing her a note about how excited I got every time the cards came out, because I knew it meant something to the story. The cards, to me, represent the protagonist's character development, especially in her struggle balancing logic (which she begins the series preferring) and intuition (which she comes to appreciate over the course of the books).

Working on Shannon's series made me think about other books that have used tarot cards to great effect, some older and some newer. Here are three books or series that center tarot practice (and one honorable mention that centers Wicca).

The Greater Trumps by Charles Williams

This novel came out in 1932, only a couple of decades after the publication of the Rider-Smith-Waite tarot deck was introduced in 1910. Williams is one of the lesser-known (but no less loved by his readers) Inklings, the group that famed writers J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis belonged to during their days at Oxford. The Greater Trumps centers the tarot deck in a battle between good and evil magic, in which faith is chosen because it's the only logical response in the face of a supernatural world. That journey through logic to belief is one that always stuck with me from Williams's writing, and the 1977 cover of The Greater Trumps was part of the inspiration I pitched to the Outland team for Matthew Warlick's card-based covers for the "Nightcraft Quartet."


Dark Oracle and Rogue Oracle by Alayna Williams

Long ago, in the days when LiveJournal was the BookTok of its era, I had a chance to host Alayna Williams on my blog to talk about her Delphic Oracle series. Her main character, Tara, is a criminal profiler who relies on reading tarot to uncover clues in her cases. After she was badly injured by a serial killer, she moved out of public life, but a case brought to her by a secret society, Delphi's Daughters, brings her back to her work. The result is an urban fantasy series that plays with the ideas of many kinds of oracles, but uses the concrete imagery of tarot to keep the stories grounded. These novels came out in the early 2010s, but they're well worth tracking down!

The Arcana Oracle Series by Susan Wands 

Delving into the history of secret magical societies in Victorian England, Susan Wands (who may have the best name ever for a writer of tarot fiction) centers her Arcana Oracle series on artist Pamela Coleman Smith, the real artist of the original Rider-Smith-Waite tarot deck. It also features Aleister Crowley as the villain of the piece, which I love—in real history, Crowley always struck me as suspect, and his work with the Order of the Golden Dawn somehow more nefarious than it ought to have been. When Pamela is hired by the Golden Dawn to illustrate her deck of tarot cards, she butts heads with Crowley, who is determined to take the power of the cards for himself. (In the second novel, Pamela uncovers Crowley's plot to assassinate the queen—and keep any woman from holding a position of power.) I was introduced to the historical Smith as a Black, queer woman, which is not how Wands depicts her, but apparently there's much debate over Smith's own identity, giving writers much leeway in how to imagine her. Wands chooses to look at her as a young woman who grew up in a higher class family, where she was expected to act like a lady and leave behind her childish beliefs in fairies. Now, in order to face off with a malevolent magician, she has to embrace her inner magic and rise to the challenge. For readers interested in Victorian era theater, the occult groups of the day, and the origin of the most famous set of tarot cards, this is a series to pick up.

Honorable Mention: Follow the Shadows by Rosemary Drisdelle

In her release day post for the Outland blog, Shannon wrote about how she originally conceived the "Nightcraft Quartet" as a "witch book," not knowing about wider fantasy genre terms. One of Shannon's characters, Christine, is a Wicca practitioner, and the books spend some time uncovering what it means to be witchkind or a human who practices witchcraft—the answer that the characters land on surprises even them! 

While some books, like the excellent Tales from the Rugosa Coven, center real Wicca practitioners in a magical-realist setting, others take the idea of Wicca and allow it to launch their characters into a greater fantastical setting. That's the case for Follow the Shadows, a YA novel in which the main character peers into a crystal ball, hoping to deepen her understanding of Wicca. Instead, she's thrust into a fantastical world, where she has to use her skills to navigate factions of dragons. It's a fun spin on the idea of witches and fantasy, and how real world magic might be applicable in a fantastical world.

-Alana Joli Abbott, Outland's Editor in Chief, loves books that play with real magical tools to create stories of wonder. You can find her drawing from the oracular Deck of Destiny, from the forthcoming game Negocios Infernales by C.S.E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez, at her Instagram.

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