From authors using existing decks to those who create their own, we take a closer look at books that use cartomancy and tarot as a magical plot device. (Minor spoilers!)
Finale by Stephanie Garber is the latest book in fantasy that showcases cartomancy and tarot prominently in not only the plot, but of the lore of the series. Cartomancy and tarot are both forms of divination that use playing cards, which fits perfectly into most fantasy worlds that feature any kind of magic.
There is a difference between cartomancy and tarot, one being that cartomancy simply uses what we would call a normal playing deck of 52 cards, whereas tarot is comprised of its own unique deck of usually 78 cards.
Both cartomancy and tarot have four suits in their respective decks of cards, with cartomancy usually augmenting their deck by adding both jokers and the blank cards that come with the decks.
In tarot each of the four suits (swords, wants, coins, and cups, but there are multiple names for each suit and these are what I personally use) have 14 cards, numbered one through ten, along with the queen, king, knight, and page as opposed to cartomancy’s king, queen, jack, and ace.
Along with the four suits in tarot that make up the Minor Arcana there are the 22 cards that make up the Major Arcana that have allegorical and exoteric meanings when the deck is used for divination and occult purposes.
In fantasy authors either use the Major Arcana that already exists, or they are ambitious enough to make their own. Stephanie Garber is one of the ambitious writers who made their own. Her deck is called the Deck of Destiny that is similar to tarot.
The Deck of Destiny is comprised of 32 cards with a court of 16 Immortals, eight Fated Places, and eight Fated Objects. Broken down further there are Greater and Lesser Immortals, similar to tarot’s Major and Minor Arcana.
While the Deck of Destiny didn’t play a major part of Caraval, it really came into play in Legendary when The Prince of Hearts makes an appearance when the Fates start escaping from the deck itself. Finale revolves heavily around the deck when The Fallen Star appears as the Big Bad in the final book in the Caraval series, along with most of the places, objects, and other Immortal Fates.
The Caraval series also features a character whose sole purpose during Caraval (a dangerous game that plays with one’s mind, blurring the lines between what is real and what is fake) is to tell people’s fortune via tarot readings.
Kerri Maniscalco’s Stalking Jack the Ripper series’ third book, Escaping from Houdini features both cartomancy and tarot, but not in a divination sense. A slew of murders are stylized after certain cards in the Major Arcana throughout the book, along with certain playing cards and tarot cards being left at the scene of each crime as a calling card.
Not only are cards used in the book, which features the Midnight Carnival aboard a ship called the RMS Etruria, but also features another popular type of fortune-telling, divination via crystal ball.
Kerri Maniscalco uses the imagery created in the more popular illustrations of the tarot deck, along with the allegorical meanings behind each as Audrey Rose Wadsworth and Thomas Cresswell figure out who the killer amongst the passengers of the RMS Etruria is before it’s too late. A lot of the chapter titles are named after both playing deck cards as well as cards from both the Major and Minor Arcana.
Ace of Shades by Amanda Foody, while not strictly about cartomancy, features it by the creation of The Shadow Game within this fantasy world. The Shadow Game just so happens to also be the name of the series, which I wrote about recently. The Shadow Game uses playing cards to invite the people of New Reynes to play a deadly game, where no one gets out alive.
Well, no one but one had survived playing The Shadow Game except one prior to both Enne and Levi receiving their own invitations in Ace of Shades. Who knew that receiving a playing card could be so ominous and chilling?
The titles of The Shadow Game also reference playing cards, with the titles Ace of Shades and King of Fools that have a play on words that mixes both cartomancy and tarot.
I, for one, can’t wait to see what the third book will be called. I’m hoping for something along the lines of Queen of Coins, considering the usage of Ace and King, along with the magical abilities in the world that Amanda Foody created. Only time will tell if my prediction is true!
The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon features seven types of clairvoyants that use different methods of connection to the aether, or the Source, which gives them their powers. The seven orders are Soothsayers, Augurs, Mediums, Sensors, Jumpers, Furies, and Guardians.
The Bone Season’s world building is unique and its magicks, while based in common divination techniques, takes it a step further by connecting magic users to their power and giving each order a hierarchy by how powerful they are thought to be. Soothsayers are cartomancers, since they use tarot cards to connect to the aether in order to predict the future. The character Liss is a cartomancer, but almost loses her powers when her deck of cards is burned.
If you haven’t checked out The Bone Season now is the perfect time to as Samantha works on the fourth book in the series, giving anyone plenty of time to catch up in this amazing series full of rebellion and clairvoyance that, while magical, is based in our own world in the future.
Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven Cycle highlights tarot readings more so than the other books mentioned because not one, not two, but three of the characters use tarot throughout the series. The main character, Blue Sargent, grew up in a house of psychics, though she isn’t a psychic herself but an amplifier. Her mother, along with aunts and friends who are as good as family, have a fortune-telling business that operates out of their house.
When Blue comes across a group of Raven Boys who show up at her house to get their cards read early on in the series, along with Blue herself that always pulls the same card.
Blue’s card is the Page of Cups (which represents innocence, but in a youthful dreaminess and emotional openness sense) , and when Richard Gansey asks her to pull a card for him, she of course pulls that one, and her mother immediately tells him that the card wasn’t meant for him, but she could have been lying. When Gansey pulls his own card, he pulls Death, which is one of the Major Arcana.
Usually the Death card doesn’t mean that someone is fated to die, but about transformation and change. It’s eerie because Gansey is fated to die within a year at the beginning of The Raven Boys. His friend, Adam Parrish, pulls the card The Magician, which is the first card of the Major Arcana and usually means that they are versatile and resilient, which Adam most certainly is.
Throughout the series the psychics pull multiple cards for different people, such as The Gray Man and Barrington Whelk, while some flat out refuse to have a card pulled for them (Ronan Lynch).
No matter if you believe in cartomancy and tarot, or find it interesting in regards to fantasy, it’s fun to think about the different meanings of the cards and spreads, in both books and in real life.