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A Tale Of Tarot And Boy Wizards Takes A Disturbing Turn In 'Child Eater'

Like most things mystical, tarot cards aren't given much mainstream credence in our Internet age. Rachel Pollack, however, knows the magic they still contain.

Besides being simply another multiple-award-winning fantasy author, Pollack is a world-renowned authority on tarot. It's no shock, then, that her new book richly overlaps these areas of interest. The Child Eater is Pollack's first novel in over a decade, and it mixes medieval high fantasy, contemporary supernatural horror, and the mystic practice of the tarot into a winning, deceptively simple whole.

The Child Eater started life as a pair of separate, tarot-themed short stories, and the book's structure follows suit. Half of it follows the life of Matyas, the son of a poor innkeeper in a world where wizards walk the earth. Matyas bitterly wishes he could rise above his station, which leads him to become an apprentice at a school for magic. But this isn't yet another Harry Potter retread. Pollack's setting has more in common with Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea: mythic, resonant, and with a vast metaphysical backdrop, all of which play a vital role as Matyas unravels the mystery behind a great, lost source of magic, the Tarot of Eternity.

The other half of the narrative concerns Jack and Simon Wisdom, a father and son shadowed by the death of their wife and mother, Rebecca, a fortune teller and tarot reader who exited their lives as magically as she entered it. As the two struggle to stay intact, Simon begins exhibiting psychic powers and Jack starts to relive a number of repressed memories from his childhood, events and images that he's never been able to understand or explain.

It's a given that the Matyas and Simon share a connection, but Pollack is in no hurry to cut to the chase. Instead she unspools The Child Eater's plot slowly, giving her dual boy protagonists plenty of room to fumble and triumph as they come to grips with their respective forms of power. But this is just as much Jack's story: the father whose failures have come back to haunt him, and whose desire for his family to be "more normal than normal" has tragic consequences as a string of gruesome child murders close in around him and Simon.

There's a lot to knit together, and Pollack doesn't skip a stitch. Her transitions from the fairytale-like atmosphere of Matyas' legendary tale to the heartbroken, plainspoken melancholy of Simon's storyline are seamless, closely recalling Neil Gaiman's ability to do the same. Even when she dives into the thematic deep end — the relationship between choice and fate are explored, as is the fundamental difference between fantasy and reality — the book never grows opaque.

But although Pollack's structure is solid, there are moments in the book that show a heavy hand. Her repetitions of symbols and motifs — parental figures, those ever present tarot cards, and, of all things, squirrels — across the two narratives sometimes feel needlessly forced, and her reliance on tried and true archetypes verges a little too often on cliche. At the same time, she successfully uses those familiar fantasy tropes to question how and why they still hold sway over us, for better and worse.

The Child Eater is written in broad, bold strokes: Matyas' quest for power is as universal and immediately resonant as Simon's frustrated desire to be a regular kid. There are nuances to that simplicity, though. It's a dark, disturbing book; it's also full of light and wonder. Edginess and sentimentality hinge together as beautifully as Matyas and Simon themselves — two boys who must come of age with the weight of centuries on their souls.

Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor, and author of the novel Taft 2012.

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