This book-deck set is definitely a program deck, but one that’s well planned and designed to appeal to young adults and those commencing on a neo-pagan path. The setting for the deck’s images is Mandrake Academy, a school of witchcraft and wizardry, where the full course extends through a year and a day. The school’s professors are depicted in the Major Arcana and students in the Minor Arcana. The Court cards display the traits of suit-related elementals.

Every professor teaches a different branch of magic that’s closely related to the card’s meaning: the Hermit teaches candle-burning magic, the Star teaches astrology, and the Hanged Man teaches runes, etc. Spells and spreads are integrated into the Major Arcana’s course-work. The deck follows the Golden Dawn attributions. Astrological glyphs and Hebrew letters appear on each card and are explained in the text. Two card names are changed to coordinate with the deck’s theme – the Fool is the Initiate, and Death is Transfiguration.

The Minor Arcana shows the four schools of magic with students learning the lessons of each element. Each suit’s cards have short meanings and descriptions of the card’s contents and symbols. The suits are associated with seasons: Swords – spring; Wands – summer; Cups – autumn; and Pentacles – winter. The seasons provide the setting for background landscapes. The students are dressed in the colors of the suit’s element, and a specific lesson is identified with each card.

The book has a pleasing format and is well written. While the concept echoes Harry Potter and the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the courses offered at Mandrake Academy are overtly witchy and pagan. Occult science basics are introduced side-by-side with tarot meanings. There is minimal negative content, and there are no exclusively reversed meanings. Instead, the card descriptions combined a gentle blend of the strengths and possible weaknesses of each card. At the end of the text, a spectrum of books is recommended for a more in-depth pursuit of tarot or pagan studies.

The deck’s artwork was created digitally with manipulated photographs. The Major Arcana cards are absolutely packed with symbolic items, glyphs, color symbolism, magical tools and animal familiars. These are carefully composed and arranged so the cards are pleasantly (not overwhelmingly) busy. The imagery is familiar but not slavishly RWS, and several cards have modified imagery that forwards the deck’s theme, occasionally with delightful results. The Hermit card is especially well done, and his demeanor gives the impression that he’d prefer to be left alone. Transfiguration (Death) is a marvelous image of a man shape shifting into a butterfly. It’s dark but hopeful, and successfully conveys the idea that not all changes and endings are inherently bad.

The Minor Arcana cards are much less loaded than the Majors. Characters are multi-cultural teenagers and are posed in scenes that closely follow the RWS. The Court cards are an unusual departure, as the humans are portrayed to resemble the elemental creatures of the suits. The Wands figures have lizard-like features, the Cups courts are water undines (mer-people), and the Swords courts are spritely winged air sylphs. The Courts of the Pentacle are gnome-like, rather homely and stocky, and plainly dressed for practical activities. These designs take the idea of elemental relationships about as far as they can go and retain human form, and it’s a fascinating approach to the Court cards. John Blumen’s art is consistently faithful to Kenner’s design intentions. This is a deck that demonstrates excellent teamwork and constant writer-artist discussions about design elements and thematic content.

As is usually the case, the Majors received far more artistic attention than the Minors. Overall, the deck has pleasing colors and a tightly planned thematic coordination that’s of great service to beginning readers as well as more experienced tarotists. Young adults, the apparent target audience for the deck, are more conditioned to digital art, and will like this deck a great deal.

The coordination of tarot and magical lessons is quite well done, with just the right amounts of information for each branch of study. The student won’t be overwhelmed by too much technical information, yet receives enough to perform simple spells and try some easy magical techniques and a few other divination methods. The spreads given in the book cover a lot of territory and are useful to tarotists of any age. The content never delves too deeply into ethical pitfalls in an obvious way, but presents a clear, sensible view of where potential problems and misguidance may occur. It won’t insult the intelligence of the average teen with baby talk, finger-shaking, or scolding that would be a turn-off. The book and deck are admirably modulated to educate and inspire the reader through the early steps of the Craft.

This deck is recommended for young adults and for individuals embarking on an exploration of pagan pathways, and for those who appreciate pagan-theme decks created with digital art.

~review by Elizabeth Hazel

Author: Corrine Kenner
Art: John J. Blumen
Llewellyn Worldwide, Ltd., May 2011
78 cards and 264 page paperback book, $28.95. 

Originally published in the American Tarot Association’s Quarterly Journal, Summer 2011 issue

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