Combine comic book artist Rex van Ryn, English history and Magic. What do you get? Red/Wheel Weiser’s newest tarot deck: English Magic Tarot. The deck uses a theme never adopted before (Magick throughout English history) in a dynamic graphic novel drawing style. And -here’s the kicker for everyone interested in something extra original: every card holds secrets to a puzzle. I got the chance to see if I could fit the pieces together and test this divination tool.
The English Magic Tarot comes in one of those lift-lid top sturdy boxes. A little on the large side, but that’s because it is holding a 160-page counting paperback companion. The book itself has a full color cover. The pages offer a small B&W card, meanings and descriptions. Having read the introduction on the whole puzzle thing, including the setting in English history, I was a little underwhelmed with the book at first. No clues or hints on, for example, the Enochian. Also: no link from the historical figures to magic.
Companion & bitches
But: compared to regular LWB’s it is a great companion. It’s big and what is offered certainly differs from the standard little white booklet with a few keywords. What you *do* get is a little historical background on those past figures, card-descriptions, spreads, a section on memory theatre (symbolic, imaginative mind-mapping) and several ‘meanings’. Those meanings were definitely fresh enough to be interesting and add to the deck. Author Andy Letcher made every text easy to follow. The parts on history and English magic are fascinating and I guess that’s where my initial ‘underwhelmedness’ came from: I just would have loved to read more.
There was one thing in the card descriptions of the English Magic Tarot that rubbed me the wrong way. It even made me question if the makers have bad experiences with women or perhaps just queens? I liked the court card section. The personification – despite most readers reading them also as energies – of the court cards made them very approachable and understandable for beginners. They could even add some ‘spice’ to the lingo of an advanced tarot reader.
However: the Queen of Swords is a bitter bitch (not just in the description, but the image made me very sad) and the Cups lady an utter drama queen. I am never a fan of this angry divorced women-nonsense with the QoS, but in this case all the queens were rather one-dimensional. And negative. I will definitely use my own concept of these ladies when using this deck. Other than that I liked the texts for the companion: 2 pages per Major and one per Minor arcana.
So, onto the cards. The English Magic Tarot is split into two piles (just like the Tarot of Dreams) in the box. A bit annoying to always have to divide it, but other than that the box is ideal (sturdy) for storage. The card-stock is okay…ish. Not super thick and after some use I did find a scuff mark on the back of one card and a corner was loose somewhere. But I do think it will hold up with more extensive use. Stock-wise it is a bit better than most mass-market stuff. We readers will always rave about thick, flexible, smooth linen stock and not so much about the thinner cards. But hey, what can we do?
The cards shuffle great though – even in tiny hands. They have a matte finish, so no stickiness. A riffle was possible too, if that is your thing. My cards are still in great condition after a month of daily use. Card backs – although having a weird picture of hands dealing cards (not really suitable for Rx) – have a bit of a texture to it. The fronts are not very glossy or laminated. Just a simple shine. The designer made use of a few colors. Mostly red-tints, green, orange, blue, black and a creamy beige. The overall look is still very colorful, but not ‘loud’.
The English Magic Tarot is based upon the period 1509 (accession of Henry VIII) to 1658 (death of Charles II). That’s the golden age of English magic, when also astrologer and advisor Dr. John Dee was present at the court of Elizabeth I. Quite a few historical characters pop up in the images (Henry VIII, Charles I, Christopher Wren, Isaac Newton), but not so much that it has become a historical deck.
Let’s say; enough to stay interesting, not too many to get confused about the theme of the deck.
The main inspiration was the use of magic in that period and any important events or people who attributed to the fact – or just to England’s history in general.
The cards broadly follow the Waite-Colman Smith (WCS) tradition, although there are several innovative differences, making the deck suitable for intermediate and advanced WCS readers.
Fresh & original
I’d definitely recommend readers who usually stay out of Waite-Smith territory to have a look. While it’s English Magic – so there are references in the deck to GD – they are not directly noticeable. They pop up when it comes to that secret message (Enochian letters for example) and once you’ve noticed those puzzle clues they can’t be fully unseen. However, it would be such a shame if people left this deck alone purely because they don’t like those attributions. I can attest to the fact that both clues and possible correspondences can actually be fully ignored when it comes to reading this deck.
The symbolism of The English Magic Tarot is fresh and not copied from the WCS. Sure there are references, but just as many exceptions. Which is, by the way, why it might not be the most suitable deck for a WCS beginner. It has scenics, but with original enough imagery. In no way is this a clone. I think you could say it follows the pattern, but not the art. The majors are borderless, all the minors have a bordered color. They’re color-coded according to elemental dignities – Pentacles are green, Wands are red. Earth & fire.
I have to say one thing though: why those borders? The word atrocity comes to mind. It creates super small art for the minors and because the majors do not have the border (thank heavens for that, look how strong and wonderful they came out!) you can’t fix it with a borderectomy. When you buy this deck you’ll be stuck with those hideous color-coded, very large borders. After 4 weeks I am still not used to them. Sorry, I know it is ‘just’ a mono-chromed frame and I really believe thought went into it, but I wish designers would stop doing it when not absolutely necessary.
I would have loved seeing the minors get the same treatment as the majors. Not only because the art there is just as great – the art is amazing in this whole deck – but also because these cards are dramatic, colorful and full of detail. The borders have now created a much smaller picture and for intuitive readers that can be a hindrance. A thin colored line would have been a much better choice. Borderless for the whole deck would have fit even better.
Like said before: this deck offers more than just tarot reading. In it is a secret message and the art is full of clues. Enochian, mirrored English, the Runic alphabet and colored letters in the Major arcana. F.e the T in Death is orange and the O in Tower is red etc. I have not figured out the entire puzzle yet. I could say I have been writing down clues every day, but that just isn’t true. I was much more mesmerized by the actual drawing and didn’t give myself time to really dive into it. Besides: giving it up in a review might get me some haters.
If you’re a fan of graphic novel- style art, the English Magic Tarot is not going to disappoint. The majors are incredible. The style would fit Marvel’s work. Strong, sharp, expressive and colorful. They each have such a dynamic within, it is as if you’re being guided to the next panel, the next window. It brings up the whole idea of the procession, where every arcana is an archetype and will be followed by the next one. All weaving into The Fool’s Journey. Or, closer to a comic book reader’s heart: each arcana is the next scene, the one you need to read to come to the plot of the story.
There are some very original pieces in there that will also make a non-comic-fan’s heart beat faster. If I start naming my favorites I could add another paragraph. (I eventually chose to show you the cards most people check. Plus a few surprises). Let’s just say I really like it and the art is so strong you will pick up a lot intuitively too. It has quite the masculine vibe, but I am pretty sure it will attract many female readers who are fond of a bold style.
The surprising thing was the – almost – complete lack of nudity. Here and there you see an arm or ankle, but other than The World (An undressed man-like figure with a bare butt) none of the characters show any flesh. Most decks nowadays have the average amount of nakedness. Some a little more than others, some more tasteful than others, but nudity is quite common – even for older decks. A fully dressed woman in The Star for example is rather rare. Anyway, if this is important to you(r clientele), The English Magic Tarot could be a good addition for just that reason alone.
One of the other strong suits of the deck (something that can bug me with other tarot decks) is the fact the characters are so ‘alive’. They all have a different posture, seem to move within the tableau and have facial expressions fitting to their scene. Instead of those identical faces you can sometimes see in tarots. You know, where they all look equally cranky or serene. Not in the English Magic Tarot though. Perhaps that is not surprising for a divination tool made by a renowned graphic novelist. He must be used to saying so much with body language and expressions. He definitely did the same for this deck. It is what makes the English Magic Tarot such a stand-out.
I think, despite the few minor points I have named before (and perhaps you don’t care about those at all), from all the new WCS-inspired decks that have come out in the last two years this one is by far my favorite. It’s new, it’s original, it’s colorful and has superb imagery. The English Magic Tarot shows love for tarot, history and art into one package. A package that also comes with a good companion and decent storage.
Whether you like puzzles or not: give it a try. I am pretty sure you’ll fit he pieces together one way or the other.
|Author or artist||Publisher||Publication|
|R. v Ryn, A. Letcher, S. Dooley||Red Wheel/Weiser||October 2016|