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Review: The Star Spinner Tarot

Published by Chronicle Books www.chroniclebooks.com (2020)

Created and Written by Trungles (Trung Le Nguyen)

I think it fair to say that the Star Spinner Tarot was one of the most hotly anticipated decks of 2020. I too had followed the artwork as I ran across it online. The jolly and enigmatic Fool, the warm and welcoming Empress, the magisterial and Miltonic Judgment all called to me from the screen, and as soon as it hit the shelves, I had mine. I perused the trumps. As one studies the cards, it is readily apparent that Trungles has reached very deeply into himself for many of these images. They feel personal. And they are beautiful.

As far back as I can recall, I have been an admirer of comic or graphic art, and Trungles’ cards are exquisite examples of Le Neuvième Art. The artist delights the eyes with his exquisite lines and evocative color; his figures strut with a delectable balance at once both grounded and ephemeral, real people, yet not. And those same figures, the most welcoming cardboard archetypes, are haloed and hallowed by the circular motif that Trungles employs throughout the deck, subtly telling the Practitioner what figure is emphasized, what movement is being seen, what design is simply being completed. As I may have mentioned, the images are beautiful.

Love is love…and really purple.

As an inclusive statement, the deck is loving and gentle. The deck includes many racial physiognomies, various and sensuous body types, and a host of ages—though the deck itself does feel…young. One of the deck’s claims to fame is the inclusion of the four Lovers cards depicting variously gendered couplings. To Trungles’ credit, the cards are each unique; there is no one Lovers card onto which sundry innamorati are pasted, and I commend the artist again on his redefining of certain symbols. The various Lovers are all Edenic in nature, but Trungles states in the accompanying booklet that, rather than temptation or sin, the apples here are symbols “of curiosity fulfilled and of maturity” (26), a winking, satisfying interpretation of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. (Strange then that one of the Lovers cards has no apples…)

Physically, first impressions are good. Though many had at one time thought that Star Spinner might be an indie deck, Chronicle Books released a mass market version instead. The cards are precisely the standard tarot size, meaning Classic RWS size; however, because of the bold colors and designs of the images themselves and white areas within the design of the cards that lead into the thin white borders, the images appear much larger and fuller than they are. They are a good cardstock in a box that is well-constructed and lovely in its own right. The backs of the cards are a reversible image of a starry sky enshrined by Victorian nymphs whose locks form the border around their metallic purple night. Again, the design is nice, but the metallic purple back is a questionable decision. While the imagery in consistent with the deck, the metallic accent in its rather pale shade is not.

The metallic back, in fact, may be a good place to begin discussing why I probably won’t be using the Star Spinner Tarot. Aside from everything that I have said quite sincerely about the beauty of this tarot, the mechanics and system of the deck have one maddening consistency: they all belong within the heart and mind of Trungles. The booklet that accompanies the deck is a mini-tome at 120+ pages and appears to have been written by the artist as well. While it is a serviceable companion to the deck, I wish that the artist had gone a bit deeper into his thought process and inspirations. One senses a bit of hesitancy in its execution. Most of the definitions are nicely turned versions of more traditional meanings, but occasionally the author will make statements that are oddly vague and seem to be quite personal to the author’s meaning of the card. I have no problem with this practice per se, but, without context, these comments often leave the reader more puzzled than enlightened. I am a tarot practitioner, and, after some years of practice, I can chat across the cards with most anyone, but if the Empress should fall, what does the expression “the satisfaction of natural desires through careful cultivation and mindful stewardship” (20) really mean? I can only speculate. His statements defining Justice are a breath of fresh air, but also so current and savvy that I am simply too old to appreciate them.

The metallic back, 2 of Wands, 4 of Cups, 3 of Swords (duh.), and 5 of Coins.

One can see the storehouse of images in the mind of the artist. I see the homages to the graphic art of the ‘70s; the quirky personality of the anime; the Victorian linework with its distinctly Art Nouveau influence; the other broadly Asian elements, both in arrangement and repetition as well as characterization and architecture. I see the inspiration from the folk stories and fairy tales from both East and West, but as a whole, I find the 81 cards hard to follow. This begins in the Major Arcana. I follow along quite well with most of the trumps, but then the Sun and Moon cards take an unexpected turn. First, the cards resemble each other so much that, without the small lunar and solar symbols on their delicate anime necks, I doubt that I could have confidently told them apart. Also, in the Sun, the artist’s description of the card in his own guidebook suggests that he is depicting the card’s reversed associations. A bold choice, to say the least.

A couple of the cards are oddly out of costume.

Unfortunately, my greatest obstacles in connecting with the deck in any meaningful way are the Minor Arcana. After all the images that impressed me so much as I waited for the deck to be released, I don’t recall ever seeing a minor arcana card. Sadly, the pips are quite off-putting. As I made my way into the suit of Wands, I remember thinking, “Oh, God, no…fairies.” And not Froudesque fairies, but just…cherubic happy sprites. Some of that theme in the Wands may be explained away by the seven, which displays a character whom I can only assume is Peter Pan. The Chalices appear to illustrate various scenes from Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Mermaid” ; the Swords illustrate nothing that I can identify except one begins to see a stronger RWS mimicry in the scenes; and the Coins offer images which are RWS-heavy but with fairy tale elements here and there, like a genie, Rapunzel, and the Snow Queen. For me, a disconnect occurs between the Major Arcana and the Minors. The trumps are adult cards; they depict bold and bodily archetypes and expressions; they have an ingenious corporeality to them. The Minors belong to the children: the cards are full of fairies and fancy. That world of the minors may be brighter and happier, but I also find it less interesting.

The Devil and Judgment are straight out of Milton’s epic Paradise Lost.

With rare exception, the court cards are all beautiful if a bit mysterious. The courts themselves are Page, Knight, Queen, and King. The Pages tend toward the impish and elemental. The Knights do justice to their suits, while the Queens seem a bit more thought out and composed. At the same time, the Queens seem a bit more mysterious, their imagery at times baffling. The Queen of Swords is enchanting and somber, but why is she wearing a snake and eating a rose? The Kings are depicted as large animals: birds, a dragon, a rabbit. To be blunt, I do not care for this practice; Robert M. Place’s Alchemical Tarot barely—barely—gets away with it.

The Star Spinner Tarot is a personal disappointment only because I wanted it to be something that it is not, but what does that mean? I have no doubt that it will be the go-to deck for many people who will treasure its welcoming and inclusive nature, its bold artistic interpretation of classical children’s literature and tarot, and its fascinating and bifurcated expression of the mind of Trungles himself, whom I thank for his inspired addition to the world of Tarot.

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