A new world to immerse myself in – and this one has all the hallmarks of being AMAZING.
Let’s hear all about it by one of its co-authors, my friend and an incredible storyteller, Marie Brennan… along with how you can be a part of the magic…
It’s one thing to decide you want your protagonist to be a fortune-teller.
It’s another thing entirely to figure out how that’s going to work.
When we embarked on the Rook & Rose trilogy, my co-writer Alyc Helms and I could have had our con artist Ren use the tarot deck — either in its familiar, real-world form, or in a modified version like other authors have done. But there were a few problems with that: tarot reflects the ideas and cultural assumptions of European society instead of our invented setting, and also writing it well would require us to be more deeply conversant with its nuances than either of us actually is. (Between you and me, that latter was probably the bigger hurdle.)
So hey, let’s dodge those problems! Let’s make up our own deck instead!
. . . yeah, like that was the easier approach.
But it was a very rewarding one, because it meant we got a feedback loop between the pattern deck and the Vraszenian culture it belongs to, with each one shaping the other. It started with the name: we chose “pattern” because it echoes the symbolic connection between threads and fate, and the next thing we knew, Vraszenian culture was full of textile imagery. Which fit with other aspects of their society; Vraszan occupies a broad river valley and their holiest city sits on the delta at the mouth, so the river lent itself to that kind of metaphorical association.
Going with textiles as the core image made it easy to decide we would call the suits “threads” instead. But how many should there be? A normal western deck has four, as does the tarot (leaving out the Major Arcana), so making our deck feel like its own thing meant we should avoid that number. Five seemed like a lot, so we settled on three — a number that wound up being very appropriate, given how often it appears in other parts of the series (starting with the fact that we have three main protagonists).
What would each thread represent, though? Part of the symbolic power of the tarot lies its thematic unities; the suits aren’t just random assortments of cards. Our original plan was that one thread would represent physical things, one social and mental things, and one spiritual, but when I began trying to plot out what concepts needed cards and which thread they’d belong to, that idea fell apart. “Spiritual” just wasn’t enough to support a whole set of cards, not when the deck itself was already a spiritual thing.
Ultimately we landed on almost the same thing, just slightly tweaked — and along with that tweaking, we found ourselves in possession of a good, clear way of describing the suits. The spinning thread represents the “inner self”: matters related to the mind and spirit. The woven thread represents the “outer self”: interpersonal relationships and social institutions. And the cut thread represents the “physical self”: the body and the material world. (Later, when we dove deeper on Vraszenian religion and developed the idea that they, like the ancient Egyptians, believe in a multi-part soul, the threads of the pattern deck acquired an additional association with the three parts of the Vraszenian soul.)
Along with that, one of our starting ideas for Vraszenian religion was that all their deities are dualistic. The Face is the benevolent aspect, the Mask the wrathful one; for example, both birth and death are under the purview of the same deity, just in different aspects. In order to have something like court cards, we gave each thread four pairs of Faces and Masks, for a total of twelve. We also added seven extra cards for the Vraszenian clans, though for in-story reasons those have mostly fallen out of use. And rather than numbering the regular cards in each thread, a la playing and tarot decks, we gave each one an individual name — a far more vivid approach, albeit one that gave us massive headaches as we tried to settle on monikers for them all! It paid off, though, in that we were able to use card names as the titles for all the books in the series: The Mask of Mirrors (lies and secrets), The Liar’s Knot (trust), and Labyrinth’s Heart (the stillness at the eye of the storm).
Deck in hand — even if it was evolving as we went through the draft of the first book — we had to figure out how to use it. The duality of the Faces and Masks came into play here, as we decided that all cards contain both the positive and negative implications of their concepts (rather than offloading the negative to a separate card), and even “bad” things can turn out well in the right situation. Rather than using card orientation to signal which one applies, though, as many tarot layouts do with reversed cards, we decided it’s based on the position in the layout.
As for those layouts, our original idea was the full nine-card spread used to lay the pattern of someone’s whole life: “This is your past, the good and the ill of it, and that which is neither,” dealt right-left-center, with the line above for the present and the top line for the future. But we rapidly discovered that it takes a lot of scene to satisfyingly explicate an entire nine-card spread, and so over time, we added other methods. Users of tarot and oracle decks often use a single-card draw for immediate guidance, and those were easy to salt into the text; we also made heavy use of a three-card line, representing where you are now, the path you should follow, and where you’ll wind up. Since the number seven is very important in Vraszenian society, it felt like we ought to have a layout based on that, so we came up with the wheel: your resources and allies, your obstacles and enemies, the wisdom you must remember, the question you must ask, the reward you earn, the risk you take, and at the center, the hub on which all else turns. The positions of that layout are themed to the Vraszenian clans, adding more cultural depth to the arrangement. And then in the final book — since we already had layouts for one, three, seven, and nine cards — we added the five-card crux, a rare layout used to curse the target. (We don’t recommend using that one in real life!)
All of that was still just the tip of the iceberg. As with real-world cards, I learned the nuances of the pattern deck as I used it — even though I was also the person inventing it (with input from Alyc). And I most definitely used it: with the exception of the times when our con artist heroine is cold-decking someone, all the patterns you see in the series are real. I have a blank deck of cards I marked up with Sharpie, and whenever we needed a reading in the story, I shuffled and dealt, and whatever I got was what we wrote. It worked startlingly well, both by nudging our plot in directions we might not have thought to take it, and by occasionally being uncannily on point. The migraine Ren gets in The Mask of Mirrors when she tries to pattern a certain mystically-defended target? That’s us leaning on the aforementioned defenses to keep the deck from blowing our plot out of the water. It tried so hard to give Ren an answer we needed her not to have until The Liar’s Knot . . .
I still have that Sharpie-marked deck, and it will always be a treasured memento. But one final piece was missing from the deck, and that was the art! We make some references to it in the text, but for the most part, the imagery on the cards themselves is undefined. Which is why we’re Kickstarting the deck right now, raising funds to pay some amazing artists to bring it to life. The details they supply will give the deck added depth — and we’re almost there! As of me writing this post, we’re 96% of the way to our goal. If you want to learn pattern for yourself — or you’re interested in some of our other rewards, ranging from signed books and series-themed tea samples to frock coats, in-world horoscopes, and a character in one of my own stories named after you — check out the campaign.
May we all see the Face and not the Mask!