Book Review: “The Fortune Teller” by Gwendolyn Womack

This book really piqued my interest because the plot centres around a tarot deck and manages to weave through different timelines without feeling confusing and overwhelming.

Our main character is Semele Cavnow, an antiquities appraiser for a very high-end New York auction house who is sent to appraise an extensive library of rare documents and manuscripts and comes across a manuscript written in ancient Greek which, as she translates it, turns out to be a prophecy arcing through history from the time of Cleopatra to Semele’s own life.

This is classed as a romantic thriller, but I would say this is a love letter to libraries lost throughout time.  In the memoirs we learn a very plausible origin story for tarot, one which feels like it could be close to the truth, and this book is written in such a way that I want to believe this to be a genuine prophecy.  As we progress through the book we get to see the timelines interweave through the novel, each chapter of Ionna’s memoir carefully translated for us by Semele as this book progresses.  The prophecy is tied to a mysterious deck of cards, and we track their path through history until we get to a wonderful scene in Milan where we see the magickal 22 cards of antiquity being reinterpreted by an artist and given, along with a 56 card playing deck, to the mistress of Duke Filippo Maria Visconti, and the Visconti tarot deck is born.  Did it happen this way?  We will never know but it is completely plausible; the Visconti deck is an intricate work of art made from the finest materials and now housed in just a small handful of museums and private collections, but they must have come from somewhere, been created by someone.

This is what I loved about this book, its plausibility.  Yes it’s a work of fiction, but one with a lot of research behind it.  There is a romance element, not just in the lives of the holders of the cards throughout time, but in the present and Semele’s life, but at no point does it feel like it dominates the narrative at the expense of the plot.  It is also worth pointing out that you do not need an understanding of the tarot to be able to enjoy this book, as the card meanings aren’t relevant although they do make good chapter headings as the characters travel from ignorance of what is ahead to better understanding of the big picture and things coming to a conclusion, which is exactly the journey taken over the 22 cards of the major arcana.

“The Fortune Teller” by Gwendoline Womack is published by Picador and is out now in America and available for pre-order in the UK in paperback or Kindle formats.

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Susanne Warnett is an author, professional tarot reader and witch. She is a host of Tarot Insider and is the industry liaison for anyone with a new tarot deck or book. In addition she is a certified Tarot Master through the Tarot Guild and a member of TABI. Her first book "Working With Tarot" was published in 2016.

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