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Is magic fantasy, theory, science or lunacy? SUSAN WANDS' Arcana Oracle Series. MAGICIAN and FOOL, HIGH PRIESTESS and EMPRESS (April)

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 Is magic fantasy, theory, science or lunacy? I was entranced by Magician and Fool, the first fantasy novel in Susan Wands’ Arcana Oracle Series (Spark Press.) I recently finished High Priestess and Empress (April, 2024), the second novel and look forward to the third. Though not a regular reader of fantasy novels nor ones about magic, it’s the history, characters and sheer imaginative leaps that I enjoy in this work.   The series, projected to cover the creation of the entire tarot deck, is a challenge. History is the bedrock for this series, enriching the fantasy with depth and plausibility. Then there’s the characters, who would be fascinating in any time. 

Pamela Coleman Smith (1878-1951) is the artist who created the famous Rider-Waite tarot deck, perhps the most used in the world. Her inspired designs are on display in the collection at NYC’s Whitney Museum of Art, as are her colored prints of ocean waves with female spirits. The real Coleman Smith attended Pratt School of Art, was a designer-illustrator, performer of folk tales, and an “empath.” 

It was easy to accept Pamela’s “second sight” in Magician and Fool. The fantasy novel begins with Pamela Coleman Smith’s growing up in America, where she has paraormal experiences.  Her older friend and guiding light in childhood is Maud Gonne, a historical figure in the Irish Revolution. Pamela begins her education in understanding the “hidden” world.

In Victorian London (1837-1901), magic was an art, as well as a science. The Order of the Golden Dawn was a secret society devoted to the study and practice of occult Hermeticism (Hermes and the Egyptian God Thoth). Theurgy(evocation of deities) was practiced in Great Britain. (In the U.S., Wicca and other practices of spiritual development were inspired by the Golden Dawn.) In Magician and Fool, the Golden Dawn’s main purpose is to acquire magical knowledge. The Victorian era of science and invention included magic as a field of exploration for educated young men. They wanted to harness the forces of nature through hidden knowledge. In this fantasy novel, such magical forces shape the fates of historical characters, in theater, art, and politics.  

In the Victorian years, when Britain controlled Egypt, priceless treasures, Egyptian property, were shipped  from excavated sites and museums to British museums and the homes of aristocrats. Secret knowledge, thought to be hidden in Egyptian hieroglyphs, was of interest to the Golden Dawn members. They funded Ahmed, an Egyptian scholar, to catalogue accurate details of these treasures. When young Pamela was looking for employment, she was given to Ahmed as an assistant. Later, when she’s commissioned to make designs for a new deck, he is able to teach her about tarot imagery and traditions. 

The other major influence in her apprenticeship is the legendary Lyceum Theater. Here Pamela meets Henry Irving, actor-producer-manager, his partner the inimitable Ellen Terry, his right-hand man, Bram Stoker (Dracula author), and William Terriss, matinee idol. These historical characters were critical to the grand evolving enterprise of Victorian theater. In these novels, they are also unwitting instruments of esoteric mystery. At the Lyceum, Stoker employs young Pamela to do odd jobs; painting, designs, publicity. filling-in as an extra. And she experiences occurrences of magical import, even a dramatic rescue from the Thames River that changes her life.

In Book 2, High Priestess and Empress, Pamela, now a young adult and orphaned, returns to the theater looking for home, family, and employment. She gets it in parts, resumes some friendships, finds odd job work, though her dream of designing sets is unfulfilled. These parts of the book, where you are backstage with her, are especially fun for theater people. And there’s lore, like the historical basis for “break a leg.” 

As part of the Golden Dawn, Aleister Crowley, a historic occultist and writer, is the “dark magician” to Pamela’s light. In the first novel, the objective of  the Golden Dawn group was not to become magicians but to gain access to paranormal power. Only Crowley wished to be a god. The others seemed to assume that as higher beings (aristocrats) they were destined to responsibly manage such power. Yet these educated men, had problems sharing it with talented women who joined the group. And their objectives differed. 

In America in the 1960s-70s, Crowley’s writings were rediscovered as a supposed means to manipulate underlying reality. In  Book 2,  High Priestess and Empress, he proves dangerous for Pamela and other gifted women. Crowley, who wants to bring the Egyptian God Horus to his time, sees Pamela as a threat. Having found her power in Magician and Fool,completing two cards, she has interferred with his plans. The battle between the two grows with her increased ability to use magic and faith in her own power. Yet she is still vulnerable and less experienced.  High Priestess and Empress shows how expanded consciousness was tough on a day-to-day basis. With her extraordinary abilities and Crowley’s emity she finds herself in constant conflict. 

Francis Farr, an important member of the Golden Dawn, depicted in High Priestess and Empress, is a balanced personality, fearless about her learning and abilities. Farr wants to see the language behind physical reality. Faith and religion seem one side of magic, the unidentified forces in nature the other. For Ellen Terry, an ageless theater icon, magic’s dispersing love to all who are dear and necessary to her. She is an inimitable force, a dramatic figure who can convey emotion and justice in work, family, and her unconventional partnership with Henry Irving. And he, aware of his power, yet unaware, in a time of enterprising actor-managers, joins the “family” helping Pamela in her fight. The amazingly handsome and couragous William Terriss, and Bram Stocker’s generosity round-out Pamela’s protectors. Engaged with the monstrous Crowley, her battle will need their engagement. 

A big theme is the purpose of power in nature and women’s lives. The biggest invention in these fantasy novels may be that they allow readers to experience magic as a tangible force in the world. I applaud how Wands ties together both Crowley’s “will to power” harnessing an Egyptian god, and Pamela’s scrying in a Church. These are means to spiritual and worldly ends for both. 

In our era of technology, many people wonder what forces will triumph to what end? Literature is a safe battleground to play out such questions.. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein  poses questions we might ask about AI–Is it possible to control machines who aren’t human? And our environmental crises asks the big question of intent. Suppose our instincts to transcend death didn’t focus on amassing as much wealth as possible, weapons of mass destruction, and subjugating nations with eternal warfare?  What else could human existence be?

For that answer, we need more imagination. Wands’ Arcana Oracle series shows history shaped by forces I never considered…read on.


Susan Wands is a writer, tarot reader, and actor. A co-chair with the NYC Chapter of the Historical Novel Society, she helps produce monthly online book launches and author panels. Magician and Fool, Book One Major Arcana Series, Susan’s first novel in a series based on the tarot artist Pamela Colman Smith, was published by SparkPress in May 2023, and won the Gold Medal in Visionary and New Age Fiction from the IPPY Awards, and the Gold Medal in Visionary from the Independent Book Awards. The second book, High Priestess and Empress, will be published in May 2024, and Emperor and Hierophant, the third book in the series, will come out May 2025.


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