Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Steampunk Tarot Review

 Book: Steampunk Tarot
Author: Barbara Moore (book), Aly Fell (card illustrations)
Subject: Tarot deck & book
Publisher: Lewellyn
ISBN: 9780 738726380
Score: 5/10 (marked down for poor quality card stock)

The first thing I have to say is that these cards really are flimsy. Like, paper-flimsy. I'd heard they were of poor quality, but hadn't expected them to be quite this papery. Most decks of playing cards are a lot more hardy than these. It's disappointing, even though I don't intend to use these as my "primary" deck, because they don't feel as good in my hands. I'm worried about damaging them just by holding them. For that reason alone I wouldn't recommend them to others, despite how charming they are.

In addition to being flimsy they also seem smaller than some of the other decks I own. They don't come with a box to keep them in, either; there is a cardboard box but it's far too large for this deck. You'll have to find another box for them, or keep them in a bag or something. I won't use a bag myself because I'd wager they'd get damaged if I did. Each card has a black border, making the images smaller still, something some people will dislike. I don't really mind them myself, but size-wise I wish the cards were larger because the illustrations are so beautiful.

Overall the deck is bright, energetic and easy to read. It's very much plugged into the Steampunk "Victorian Explorer" drive for exploration and discovery, so it has an adventurous energy, and I like that.

Now, the images. Worry not, it's not 100% brown-and-brass. There are some rich colours here. Most of the cards have something of a story to them, which is something I love. A few don't, and it tells; they're just not as good as those that do, however pretty they are. Some of the cards do tend towards more of a "fantasy" feel than a Steampunk one, which bothers me a bit. The Ten of Wands, for example, is a girl with a glowing staff, the only "steampunky" thing on the card a cogwheel on her hat which just looks out of place. Cogwheels aren't a steampunk requirement, and to stick them on an otherwise un-steampunky card feels like the deck is trying too hard. The deck does do a great job on other cards, though: the King of Wands is a magician, for example, which is perfect. Most of the pages and knights are all females, which is an interesting change. It's a woman-heavy deck, actually, though many of them eschew gender roles. There are plenty of aviatrices and adventuresses. A couple of the cards have a London skyline in the background which makes me wish they'd used smoky city backgrounds more often. They don't stick to Victorian-flavoured Steampunk as is usual; a few cards have more of an Art Deco feel, such as The Star. The backs of the cards are non-reversible, but pretty cool, with all four suits picked out in brass.

I don't feel like they've put as much effort into the male figures as the female ones. They're all more or less similar, moustachioed, serious, dull, which a couple of exceptions. The Fool really throws that into perspective, as there's a male figure with some real personality. The Lovers card isn't really my thing; the figures are nice enough but the angel above them seems out of place. Strength is also pretty disappointing; usually one of my favourite cards, the woman taking the cogwheel from the lion's paw just seems bored and the setting of trees is rather dull. They could have had some sort of Hyde Park menagerie instead, or the lion as a lady's pet; here I'm not really sure what's going on, why the woman is where she is, whether she just found the lion or it is accompanying her. For all they tried to make a story with the lion and the cogwheel (Androcles and the Lion was an obvious influence) it just appears to be a single scene without much depth to it.

Onto the cards I like. The Three of Cups I rather favour; it has three women in a bar, one in a dress, one in a harem-pants getup, and the third in breeches and a waistcoat. It's like some beautiful little lesbian three-way. The Queen of Pentacles is out of her era - she looks rather more Art Deco than Victorianesque - but she's still marvellous, descending the stairs in gold silk with a fan and a lofty expression. The Devil is a great steaming automaton, controlling a man and his apprentice on strings, and I love it. The Page of Pentacles is a gorgeous woman in a greatcoat and buckled boots, stepping in from (or is it out into?) the snow. In contrast to Strength, for example, this card has some real story to it - you might not know what it is, but you're eager to invent it.

The book is small, but sturdy. I wish the cards themselves took after the book more. The images inside are black and white. Each card gets a page or just over, but not every card begins on a separate page. That's not really an issue for me, as there's an image for every card anyway and things are clearly laid-out. Each card comes with a "quote" at the top of the page. For most of the cards these aren't sourced (authors of quotes appear only for the Kings as far as I can see so far), so they appear to be created by the authors, which is fine. (Although one of them contains the phrase "allons-y" which makes me wonder.) They illustrate the cards nicely. There are a few spreads, with wonderful names ("A Most Excellent and Sensible Spread complete with moving parts") but I wish they had created a few more. I love finding new spreads.

Overall, they're a great set but the poor quality of the cardstock just ruins the entire deck for me. It's a great shame, because it's easy to read and beautiful and charming. If they re-issue the deck with better card stock, I'd be tempted to buy it again. Having read a couple of spreads, I would be tempted to make these my primary deck if they were hardier, but they just won't stand up to regular use. I might see if I can improve the quality through lamination or something. But I worry I'll ruin them!

They're good, but they're let down by the card quality. Let down a LOT. I feel quite sorry for the authors, because the publishers really screwed them over here.

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