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The Magician and the Fool
Barth Anderson
Bantam, 289 pages

The Magician and the Fool
Barth Anderson
Barth Anderson's short stories have appeared in Asimov's, Strange Horizons, Polyphony, Alchemy, Talebones, The Journal of Mythic Arts, and a variety of other quality venues. Barth received the Spectrum Award for Best Short Fiction in 2004, and he writes regularly for Utne Reader's Best of Indie Press-nominated Wedge Newsletter. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and son.

Barth Anderson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Patron Saint of Plagues

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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Barth Anderson has published some intriguing short stories, and his first novel, The Patron Saint of Plagues, was well-received last year. That book was SF -- a biological thriller. His new novel, The Magician and the Fool is Urban Fantasy with elements reminiscent of Tim Powers. (Probably a bit more similar to Anderson's body of short fiction.)

The story runs on two threads. In one, Jeremiah Rosemont is a former academic, apparently an expert on the history of the Tarot, who has abandoned his former life and is wandering through Nicaragua when he gets a curious summons to Rome. When in Rome, he finds strange things happening -- particularly an encounter with an old colleague, John C. Miles, who was a close friend but also a rival -- they broke over the question of the occult nature of the Tarot. Rosemont also meets some people (Or are they?) who might be hundreds of years old, and becomes embroiled in a struggle over an ancient Tarot deck that might give great power to some very ancient beings.

In the other thread, a homeless man, called simply Boy King, who makes his living by dumpster diving and occasional Tarot readings in the streets of Minnesota, becomes aware that someone is after him. Childhood memories -- that he isn't sure are his -- begin to afflict him. A tarot reading goes terribly wrong. And a few thugs seem to be after him -- compelling him to once again use the power he has tried to renounce, the power to take over people's minds. (A power shared by Rosemont, as it happens.) It takes quite a while to learn how this thread and the Rosemont thread are related (except by the Tarot), but related they are, quite intimately.

The elements are here for a fine novel. And Anderson writes quite well. But I don't think the book ends up working. Its greatest weakness is a disappointing ending -- the mysteries revealed are simply not as neat as they might have been -- the whole thing is very anticlimactic. The book tries to insist on ancient secrets involving the Tarot, but never convinces in that way. In addition, Jeremiah Rosemont never comes to life as a character, and his half of the book drags rather. Boy King, by contrast, is a well-drawn individual -- and throughout the book I kept wanting to get back to his story. I think Anderson remains a promising writer -- he certainly has the chops. But this book is a bit of a misstep -- a sophomore slump, perhaps.

Copyright © 2008 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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