Arcana: A Tarot Anthology, Madison Scott-Clary, ed. – Book Review by Fred Patten
by Pup Matthias
Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.
Arcana: A Tarot Anthology, Madison Scott-Clary, ed. Illustrated by Joseph Chou.
Lansing, MI, Thurston Howl Publications, November 2017, trade paperback, $17.99 (xi + 423 pages).
The tarot cards, according to the Preface by editor Scott-Clary, were introduced to Europe in the 15th century. They have been used for fortune-telling since the 16thth century, if not earlier. There are four suits of 14 cards each, plus 22 “major arcana” cards. The arcana have individual names: The Fool, The Magician, The High Priestess, The Hierophant, and so on. Arcana: A Tarot Anthology presents 22 stories, one for each arcana card, featuring anthro animals. Each is illustrated by a full-page portrait in the style of an anthro arcana card by Joseph Chou.
The first story, “The First Step” (The Fool) by editor Madison “Makyo” Scott-Clary, is less a story than a tutorial on how tarot fortune-telling works. Avery, a shy young mountain lion, is sent by his mother to a nameless older badger fortune-teller by his mother. Avery, the narrator, is just about to leave home for college, and his mother insists that he find out from the tarot cards what the future will bring. The motherly badger is as much a lay psychologist as a fortune-teller. “The First Step” is unusual in being narrated in the present tense:
“She leans in close to me, stage-whispering, ‘I’ll let you in on a secret. None of the cards in the swords suit – in any suits – show blood. Death, yes. Change, definitely. But no blood. It’s hardly hacking and slashing.’
‘But they’re still –‘
She holds up a paw. ‘They’re still swords, but they’re tools. Swords show work. Strife, sometimes, sure; striving toward a goal. But what they is show work. These swords aren’t working right now, they’re just standing there. So where is the striving?’
‘Behind them?’ I ask. “They figures are all facing away from something.’
‘Or toward something.’
‘So,’ I say hesitantly. ‘I’m going to go on a journey?’” (p. 11)
“Cat’s Paw” (The Magician) by Mut is narrated by a nameless desperate were-dog who accosts a lion-man wizard and his date in a bar to get his curse removed. But nobody is what they seem. Very sardonically amusing:
“So here’s the secret to spotting a wizard: look for the one with a body that’s just too perfect. There’s a stud who’s six three, muscles fighting to escape his shirt, not a hair out of place? Wizard. Or a porn star, maybe, but probably a wizard.
I’d been trawling through bars for a wizard all evening, ad it was getting close to the deadline. I’d found a couple of almosts and one obvious poseur, but nobody with real magic. This guy, though, he was unmistakeable. He hadn’t even bothered to keep it human – too green to know better, or too powerful to care. He was a lion, with a mane and golden fur and whiskers and everything. There was even a tail flicking away under the barstool.” (pgs. 21-22)
“Catalyst” (The High Priestess) by Kristina “th ‘buni” Tracer is good, but it suffers from being too similar to “The First Step”. The narrator, unnamed until the last page, gets stinking drunk and into a fight at the Unicorn Chaser nightclub. His date, an impala named Ndidi, walks out on him. He is sobered up the next day at the nearby home of an also-unnamed porcupine “spiritual consultant”. She uses the tarot, but her “fortunetelling” is more lay psychiatry than anything else. Her counseling solves the narrator’s emotional problems that led to his drunkenness. A feel-good incident.
“Domestic Violence” (The Empress) by Frances Pauli features a modern domestic home of dinosaurs; George & Anni Raptor, and their daughters Ellie & Emily. Were raptors really this short-tempered?
“Anni peered through the glass oven door and tapped one oversized sickle-claw against her linoleum tiles. Her casserole bubbled happily away on the rack inside. One half pound of gooey melted cheese almost near perfection, and George was late getting home again.
It would be cold, ruined, by the time he finally dragged his tail through the front door.
She squinted at the bubbles and raked her claw against the tiles, digging an angry rut in the floor that George was bound to notice. That, he’d see. Her new nail polish or the dress she’d picked out for their anniversary, however, he’d likely never even acknowledge.” (p. 51)
“George warbled deep in his throat and walked into his house to see a ring of disapproving expressions. They sat around the dining table, in the alcove just off the kitchen, and it looked like they’d fully stuffed themselves without him.
You’re late again,’ Anni snapped. Her toe tapped an irritating staccato against the flooring and he could already see a spot where she’d damaged it again. More remodels he could barely afford.” (p. 53)
Two angry, frustrated raptors. A perfect recipe for domestic violence.
“Domestic Violence” is the first story here that has no obvious connection to the tarot arcana. Anni is certainly the Empress of the Raptor household, though. Arcana or not, this is one of the most wickedly humorous stories in this anthology. Pauli never lets you forget that these are ferocious, hissing raptors in a business suit and a dress.
“Joseph and the Technicolor Fur Coat” (The Emperor) by Stephen Coughlan is a sweet tale of confronting modernity:
“It used to be that he [Joseph T. Macintosh, a human] rented a bull from one of his neighbors for a month or two, got most, if not all, of his herd pregnant and then sent the bull back to its home on a trailer. Nowadays, Joseph had to contact the breeder industry and then within hours of ordering a stud, a half-human/half-cow creation, a recent creation of science, would pull up in a fancy automobile, lurch his way to the field, and commence, ahem, ‘meeting’ every cow in the vicinity.” (p. 63)
Joseph, sixty years old, is the Emperor of his farm, but he’s resigned himself that he’s behind the times. He’s satisfied that his three “wayward children” have created modern lives of their own. Peter will come home to take over the farm. Susan is a university graduate with a good job lined up, and a reliable fiancé. David … well, Joseph has a hard time accepting David’s lifestyle, but at least David is a successful hair stylist. Joseph is even ready to grit his teeth and accept David’s homosexual marriage to another man. Then he learns that Felix is a hybrid:
“‘Yeah I’m sure.’ Felix finally purred. His voice was deep and guttural. He was a cross between human, black leopard, and Himalayan housecat. His dark fur shone n the morning light, and painted highlights, which had been lovingly applied by his fiancé and covered his body from head to foot, sparkled in a brilliant Technicolor display.” (p. 73)
Can Joseph accept Felix as David’s “husband” or is this Too Much?
“The Lunatic” (The Hierophant) by C. M. Averin may be the most subtle story in this anthology. “‘I need it,’ she whispered. ‘Kill him.’” (p. 85) Rafael, a wolf in a bar, hears her voice and follows a coyote out into the snowy forest to the river to kill him. Who is Rafael, the coyote, listening to? Who is “her”? Consider the title and the meaning of “hierophant”.
In “Love Not Misplaced” (The Lovers) by Hypetaph, Annette (cheetah) confesses her doubts about her husband Keiran’s love for her and the stability of their marriage, in the cathedral’s confessional. Father Joseph (fossa) reassures her. The story has a stinger at the end.
In “Avoiding the Subject” (The Chariot) by TJ Minde, the chariot is the car that Robert (rabbit) and Danny (pika) drive to Robert’s Midwestern childhood home for a family reunion dinner. As they drive back to the city afterwards, Robert asks Danny why he never talks about his family. Danny tells him. A nice slice-of-life story.
“Chasing the Dragon” (Strength) by Baxil is narrated by Regan, a dragon suffering hoard-withdrawal in Pangaea, where he’s lived for 18 days on a visa granting asylum. Regan’s native Draconia is on the verge of declaring war on Pangaea, and Regan, a pacifist, has emigrated. Pangaea is a herbivore nation, but determined not to back down in the face of Draconian aggression. Regan can take the prejudice of most Pangaeans against dragons, but he’s afraid of succumbing to addiction to his hoard of coins, which he had to leave behind in Draconia. Will Regan have the emotional Strength to survive in Pangaea without it?
The Hermit in “While It Lasts” (The Hermit) by John Kulp is Curtis Vintner, a southern possum (presumably an American opossum, not an Aussie possum) living alone in a cabin with his shotgun. The narrator is his nephew Trevor, a gay teenage punk full of piercings who has been sent to his uncle for a week for punishment for having been caught with weed. Trev hates his uncle’s redneck lifestyle, but he hates government bureaucracy more. When the government tries to seize Uncle Curtis’ land for non-payment of taxes, Trev plans to fight the government’s lawyers in court. But first he has to convince Uncle Curtis not to fight them from ambush with his bear traps and shotgun. A nice funny-animal tale of two different generations and lifestyles bonding.
“The Dragon of Volcano Island” (Wheel of Fortune) by Madison Keller is a short-story prequel to her Dragonsbane Saga series. Riastel, a dragon youth, is turned out of his mother’s cave to find his own home. His search leads to a perfect cavern on a volcanic island, already occupied by a larger dragon who has amassed a hoard of gleaming gold. He just has to figure out how to get rid of the older, deadlier dragon. Riastel’s story leads to Keller’s The Dragon Tax, where he meets Sybil Dragonsbane.
In “Red” (Justice) by Searska GreyRaven, four lycan (wolf) teens dare each other to call Bloody Mary, a supernatural lamb whose fleece is soaked with blood, who (according to urban legend) comes through a household mirror if summoned at midnight on Halloween. So they call her through the bathroom mirror at Jason’s house. Is this supposed to be a Halloween horror story? The writing is okay, but the mood is just of four teens goofing off on Halloween night. Totally un-scary. What’s more, this is the most “funny animal” story in the anthology. The “lycans” and lambs never feel like anthro animals instead of modern urban humans.
The Hanged Man means reversal. In “Unbound” by Chris “Sparf” Williams, is Finn (wolf) gay or transgender? Finn feels fucked up several ways. His father hates “queers”. His mother doesn’t care what gender he is; she just wants him to become a successful corporate office climber instead of the independent artist he wants to be. Finn’s older brother Blair is supportive, but he’s ultra-straight and Finn can tell he doesn’t really understand what Finn wants. What does Finn want? He doesn’t know himself. In “Unbound”, Finn struggles to discover what he really is.
“Unbound” is a really strong story, but it kept flagging my hangup about funny-animals vs. real anthropomorphs. Mentions of anthro wolves, foxes, otters, and other species shopping at IKEA, drinking beers or martinis, eating meat loaf, “a pine marten chewing on his morning pastry” (p. 231) at a coffee shop, kept me seeing them as just animal-headed humans despite Williams’ frequent mentions of fur and tails. (Would a wolf order a Caesar salad at a restaurant?) “Unbound” is great if little details like this don’t bother you.
“St. John’s Bridge” (Death) by Rose LaCroix also has a transgender theme. The first-person focus is developed through back-and-forth incidents in Allen’s/Erica’s life between 2014 and 2010. Death is involved, but how? Again, this is a better story if you aren’t bothered by hangups about foxes, deer, hyenas, and ocelots living together in real cities like Las Vegas, driving cars of real makes like Mustangs, and so on.
“A Temper for Order” (Temperance), a second story by Frances Pauli, is set in a seaside community of birds. Piper, a sandpiper, is a herbalist. Trudy, a neighboring shopkeeper, is a weaver bird. Dash, a stork, collects and sells pretty seashells. Trudy, a matchmaker, is trying to set up a romance between Piper and Dash, but Piper is a neatness freak and Dash appears to be a sloppy drunk. “A Temper for Order” dramatizes that Temperance means moderation in all things, not just drinking.
“Faux” (The Devil) by Atrum is highly unusual in never saying specifically what the protagonist is. The reader has to piece together clues in the story: “The practice opened at seven, closed at six, five days a week; he spent months becoming primarily diurnal, there weren’t enough nocturnal species in that area to cater to.” (p. 296) Ian, a doctor (Chou’s arcana portrait shows him as a raccoon), has built a successful practice, but he’s obsessed with displaying that success. He works longer hours to make more money to buy flashy signs of wealth for his home and office. Iker (husky), his receptionist, argues that he should get more rest, hire more help; Iker is less worried about Ian’s health as that he’s starting to make mistakes from overwork. But Ian can’t cut back because that might look like he was less successful. The Devil is a symbol of obsession with material things.
“The Storm” (The Tower) by J. S. Hawthorne is so vividly written that you don’t need Chou’s illustration to see the action:
“The rat called Paladin – the only name left to him – stood at the end of the craggy pass, staring up at the tower. It was a huge monolith, and its black-marble façade was alive with blue-green light from the electric sensors embedded in its surface. Sparks and electrical arcs lit the night from the Tesla generator on top, and threw him into sharp relief against the obsidian around him.” (p. 315)
Paladin is part of a team of revolutionaries attacking a major bastion of the oppressive government, a tower disguised as a Weather Monitoring Station. He fights his way to the top despite fierce resistance wielding both swords and electric weapons. A tense, exciting story.
In “No Peas in My Garden” (The Star) by Dan Leinir Turthra Jensen, narrated by a nameless priest, it is the Church that is bioengineering Nhab experiments like Lucia the lioness assistant curate, and the public that protests against them. After all, the Church teaches that we are all – all – God’s children, and it was a priest who first discovered the laws of genetics with pea plants. The priest is about to soothe the crowd, but Lucia asks to speak for herself. This is a different viewpoint from one often heard in furry fandom, but quietly, powerfully expressed.
In “Who Fights With Monsters” (The Moon), Kyell Gold packs a novel’s worth of plot into a sixteen-page short story. Czoltan, a teenager, has been a werewolf for eight months. The U.N. has ruled that the werewolves in the Balkans should have their own country, but the armies of the former Yugoslav nations try to “ethnic cleanse” the area of werewolves before that can happen. There is silver dust as a weapon to kill werewolves, and the “fact” that if a werewolf stays in wolf form for too long, it becomes normal wolf permanently. Czoltan wants to fight for the werewolf nation, but should he do it as a human, a half-wolf, or a full wolf?
In “Remembering Sisyphus” (The Sun) by George Squares, Salim (Tiger), Chrissy (Border Collie), and Victor (Yellow Labrador) are attending an endless party throughout the resort city of Cape Carolyn. They pick up the nameless narrator (Spathy, a Squirrel), alone, and he and Salim go off together.
“I took him to the pier which held the biggest Ferris wheel in the city. Its lights dazzled in day glow vivacity that sparkled and shined as a spinning medallion. The twilit horizon line of the ocean made the wheel appear god-like, Aztec, holding attentions immeasurable as they passed us, shrieking with delight and rapture. A dapper weasel in a boater hat handed us change and two ticket stubs as we entered our cart.” (p. 375)
Will Salim ever realize that they are trapped in a sunny, endless party that really does go on forever?
“A Time for Giving” (Judgment) by Allison Thai focuses on Sonya, a Soviet wolf who awakens from a freezing wintry train wreck in the tent of Batu and his family of Mongolian horses. As Sonya heals and the weather improves, she has time to compare the worlds of the ruthless NKVD with that of the peaceful nomadic peasants.
Diamma, in “The Unification of Worlds” (The World) by Mary E. Lowd, is one of a party of hybrid spacemen; a lion-lizard. Others are Aggem, a deer-bird, and Mundo, a turtle-elephant. They are sent to the perpetually pink-snowy world of Snomoth, inhabited by a tiny, mouselike civilization.
“‘Wait,’ the mouse squeaked. ‘Take me with you. The universe is ending: take me with you!’” (p. 404)
What can Eip, the yellow Snomoth mouse, teach the galactic civilization?
Arcana: A Tarot Anthology (cover by Joseph Chou) contains 22 stories. Only “The First Step” and “Catalyst” are visibly tarot-arcana oriented; the others are related to the theme in more subtle ways. Some stories are naturally better than others, but almost all are worth reading; some are unforgettable. The anthology may be better than I make it seem by emphasizing my own prejudice against “funny-animal/animal-headed human” stories; if you don’t mind these, Arcana is really good. The 22 arcana-card illustrations by Joseph Chou, each featuring the protagonist of its story, are almost worth the price of the anthology alone. Do not just glance at them; study them. Arcana will bring you reading pleasure for days.
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