The FairyTale Tarot by Karen Mahony, Illustrated by Alex Ukolov with artwork by Irena Triskov
Review by Diane Wilkes

You can order the deck/book set from Amazon here.

The publishing team of Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov have a pretty impressive record. Recent releases of  the Tarot of Prague and the Tarot of Baroque Bohemian Cats evinced a combination of a striking and powerful artistic aesthetic, as well as humor and intelligence. The companion books are delightful, informative, and chock-full of insights. So I didn't just have high hopes when I heard about their then-forthcoming FairyTale Tarot, because hope implies doubt--and I had no doubts. Any story-themed decks have a special place in my heart, and, in conjunction with Mahony's rich understanding of the cards, I knew this would be a deck I would immediately love.

Was I right? Yes and no. This is the first non-collage deck for the Magic Realist Press. The art is very special, similar in quality to the best Disney movies, but often brushed with a dark and quirky whimsy that you won't find in any modern films for children. Happily, the deck is slightly larger than standard, which allows the fine detail to be more fully appreciated. The colors are rich and subtle. While they are definitely not gentle pastels, they are also not dark enough to be jewel-toned. However, the depictions of animals are occasionally just too simplistic, even awkward--the Four of Wands, for example, unfortunately makes me think of Gumby's horse, Pokey.

Most of the time, however, the art simply delights, with detailed, evocative images that are easy to enter and ideal for storytelling. Unlike the prior two decks, though, many of the card images, especially in the Minor Arcana, are not similar to any traditional template, such as the Rider-Waite-Smith (RWS) imagery. I actually went through the deck and, without thought to the corresponding story, separated the cards into images that were suggestive of family imagery and those that went really far afield. (For the curious, five Majors and 17 Minors fell into the second category.)

In and of itself, this isn't necessarily a problem, as long as you can remember the story from each card and find a way to link it to your traditional understanding. I was able to do this with some cards and not others.

The Fool is a very traditional looking one--a young boy (specifically, The Poor Miller's Boy) standing on a precipice, with a little cat companion pawing at his boots. The Magician's story is very much of the trickster variety, and the High Priestess is a village wise woman. Both the nurturing mother and the evil Stepmother archetypes are embodied in the Cinderella Empress, but only the fairy godmother is represented pictorially.

The take on the Emperor is less about power than the importance of valuing life over property or the material--it is based on "The Emperor and the Nightingale," wherein a little nightingale languishes in and then escapes from the palace because his song has been replaced by a mechanical bird. Eventually, the mechanical bird breaks down, but the living nightingale returns to sing the Emperor back to life. It's an odd, untraditional, but lovely interpretation of Trump IV.

The Hierophant gets an equally positive slant and The Lovers harkens back to the Marseilles-styled version of this card, with two very different sister-women, one who is physically lovely and another who is ugly, but clever. The ugly sister is not only brave, but transforms herself and her world; she could be the focus of a number of Major Arcana cards. This is one of those cards where the story encompasses so many messages and meanings that it overwhelms the actual card, at least in the strictest sense of understanding the archetype. The Hanged Man also goes back to the Marseilles-thief exemplification--the Magic Realists like their tarots and their stories dark and filled with shadow, not Disney-sanitized or fluffed with new age white light.

This is not to say this is a dark or depressing deck--but there's a respect for reality in these magical tales. The Chariot is based on The Snow Queen and is one of the loveliest cards in the deck. You can feel the chill in the air and on your cheeks, and smell the cold, snow-infused purity of the wind. The story itself shows how cold the desire for power can be when it is not laced with the warmth of the human heart. Beauty and the Beast makes for a natural match with Strength, and Bearskin as The Hermit works equally well.

Godfather Death is a tale of a young man who tricks Death once, but doesn't live to do it again--grim, but then, so is the Death card. Temperance is rather homespun, illustrating the importance of Water and Salt. This very cleverly adds the alchemical quality of the card into account.

Another clever attribution is The Devil card to The Red Shoes--I'm dancing as fast as I can takes on a whole new meaning. The Tower is a strange tale, full of anxiety, deceit, and betrayal--and another match that is a bit far-fetched for me. But the imagery is atmospherically foreboding, if not particularly explosive.

I was halfway hoping for a story that merged the Moon (at top) and the Sun, as there are many fairytales that do just that. But The Moon is dedicated to the mysterious Water Nixy, a powerful and tricky being. The Sun, on the other hand, is another odd and complex tale of someone who goes through more tribulations than I ever imagine when I see the Sun card.

The Minors, in general, are a little less detailed, both in terms of the storytelling that Mahony relates for each of the cards and also the meanings. Yet many of the stories are just as complex as those for the Majors, and sometimes the card interpretation gets lost for the reader in the midst of the intricate story components.

The Aces blend into the rest of the Minors--nothing sets them off as singular, as the hand of the divine and the simple enlargement of the suit symbol do in the RWS Tarot.  Some of the stories are wonderful matches, like the Puss in Boots for the Nine of Cups and The Frog Prince for the Seven of Swords. The merry revels in the first and the mental game playing in the second are dead on associations that you can take with you when you read with other decks.

The Majors are not numbered, so you can choose whether you want Strength to be VIII or XI (Justice is numbered XI in the book). The suits are Wands, Cups, Swords, and Coins. The court is Page, Knight, Queen, and King, and the Majors are traditionally titled, as well. The elegant card backs are reversible. All of these factors point to traditional leanings, even if the deck itself veers from a straight course.

So why the yes and no, you ask. Unlike the two other decks by Mahony and Ukolov, you absolutely must read the book in order to use the FairyTale deck with any kind of depth. I don't consider that a strength.

On the other hand, I think that the book and deck repays that kind of time and study, especially if, like me, you love myth and story and the interweaving of those things with tarot. And it's not like it's painful to read the book--Karen Mahony's writing is clear and cosy without being remotely cutesy. And the introduction is by no less a luminary than Rachel Pollack, who also contributed a marvelous story based on the Ten of Coins. Which reminds me--that's another thing this deck is absolutely made for--telling stories and working with children who are interested in the tarot.

For me, the jury is still out as to how much I'll use this deck, but I think it could become very beloved--in time. It's a growth deck, not an out-of-the-box deck.

And I am confident I will love--eventually--anything Magic Realist Press publishes. The level of intelligence, care, and quality in every deck is pervasive and influential. Even the cards have been coated to withstand intensive use. And the beautiful, whimsical borders invite you into the images; the card titles, centered within a scroll, remind you of the magic you can create in your own FairyTale readings. The precision of detail is subtle and omnipresent. 

I recommend this deck to those who, like me, love the combination of tarot and story, as well as enchanting art...and of course, collectors.   

  Yes No
78 cards X  
Reversible Backs X  
Strength VIII, Justice XI N/A  
Color Images X  
Standard (RWS) Titles of the Major Arcana X  
Traditional (RWS) Suits (Wands, Chalices, Swords, Pentacles) X  
Traditional (RWS) Golden Dawn Suit-Element Attributions Rods--Air; Swords--Fire X  
Standard dimensions (approx. 4 3/4" X 2 3/4")                     X
Smaller than standard                                           X
Larger than standard (approx. 5" X 3")                       X  

You can see more cards and order the deck and/or book here.

You can order the deck/book set from Amazon here.


Images 2005 Magic Realist Press
Review and page 2005 Diane Wilkes