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Deck Review: Shadowscapes Tarot

August 11, 2010
The Fool -- Shadowscapes Tarot

The Shadowscapes Tarot
Deck by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law
Companion Book by Pui-Mun Law & Moore

The Shadowscapes Tarot, new from Llewellyn, has its own special character, its own special niche in which it shines. Some people may find its lilting grace, intricate beauty, and lush fantasy scenes to be too “fluffy,” and so they may discount this deck. But others — fans of the fantasy genre especially — will swoon over these cards. I know I did.

Each card in this deck is an exquisite watercolor painting — a work of art, really — and I find the artwork, with its opulent detailing and fluid movement, captivating to the point of being mesmerizing. I love this about it, but the problem is that when I began to use the deck for readings, it was easy to get lost in its beauty, which made it hard to hear my intuitive understanding of the messages of the cards. However, as I become increasingly familiar with the cards I am becoming less likely to be awed by their artistic merit, so this “problem” is dissolving with time and experience. Also, it seems this deck would quickly work well for someone with a reading style in which they ask the seeker questions like, “What do you see happening in this card?” and then use those responses as part of the reading experience. But even if the art distracts you from being able to do traditional divinatory readings, there are other uses for which this deck is well suited. For example, these very evocative images work especially well for doing guided visualizations.

The Shadowscapes deck basically follows the Rider Waite Smith tradition, but it is far from simply being a RWS “clone.” Law has deconstructed the traditional card images, pondered the integral tapestry of their meanings, and then constructed her own renderings based on her new vision for them. For many of the cards, she has used a very unique perspective, and all of them distinctly bear her imprint in one way or another. Consequently, less experienced readers (especially those who find the ease of transitioning to a new deck dependent upon its close approximation to the RWS template) will find that this deck is not an easy one to pick up and use. And certainly, it does require more than an average amount of contemplation and time spent gaining familiarity with the cards in order to use it with facility. However, in my experience with this deck, this is time well spent which will take you to new, uncharted terrain for many of the individual cards. In other words, the journey is well worth taking.

Indeed, every time I look at one of these cards I see a little more detail that enriches my experience and understanding of it. One source of such detail is the almost ubiquitous appearance of nymphs and dryads and fairies who are subtly participating in each scene. However, you generally have to look closely to notice them, and then you have to think about what they are doing in order to get their messages. For instance, a fairy on the Wheel of Fortune card sits examining a fairy skull (skulls being a traditional illustration of our realization of our mortality) but he (she?) is easy to overlook since the Wheel behind him is so sumptuous and intricate.

A brief overview

The Wands cards are mostly populated with foxes and felines, and they are painted in warm amber hues.

In the suit of Cups it is no surprise that we see lots of fish and mermaids (and mermen) and the dominant colors are cool shades of blue.

Birds, especially swans and crows, populate the Swords cards, and the pervasive color of the suit is violet. (Note: This deck’s Swords cards tend to seem less dire than usual.)

Lizards and dragons are ubiquitous in the green-hued cards of the suit of Pentacles.

Happily, I found the Court Cards to be very dynamic overall, and each one is distinctive.  I point this out because a lack of such qualities is not uncommon among Tarot decks, which disappoints me.

The Major Arcana cards are embellished with birds and butterflies, which are symbols of Spirit. However, I could discern no unifying color for the Majors as I did for the suits of the Minor Arcana. The individual cards of the Major Arcana are colored according to their specific needs, although Law does seem to have a penchant for cool blues and violets.

The only significant change in the Major Arcana is that the Death card is illustrated with a phoenix, making the rebirth aspect of this card overly explicit. There are a couple other, less significant changes too. The High Priestess rises up in a very active pose, in contrast with her usual passive posture. Also, the dual-pillar motif repeated in several of the RWS Majors is gone. This is not a problem for me, but it is an observation which may be of interest to some people.

Finally Strength is VIII and Justice XI, for anyone who is concerned about that.

A few of my favorite card images

Five of Wands -- Shadowscapes Tarot*  The leaping foxes in the Five of Wands add a sporty, playful feeling to the chaos which is typical oSix of Cups -- Shadowscapes Tarotf this card.

*  In the Six of Cups, a young girl hosts a tea party for her stuffed animals. This is a somewhat different image from that of the RWS deck, but the feel of it resonates in a similar way.

*  The Four of Pentacles features a dragon hoarding his treasure, which is reminiscent of Smaug (the dragon from The HobbiFour of Pentacles -- Shadowscapes Tarott) and his stockpile of treasure. It thus exemplifies this card’s traditional meaning of a wealthy miser.The Tower -- Shadowscapes Tarot

*  For me, the Tower card has a lovely Lothlórien feel to it, which makes the devastating lightning strike all the more distressing.

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Friend Test:

I love to “friend test” decks that I am reviewing. For this one, I had my friends Amy and Marieke come over, and we all did readings with it. Marieke already had this deck and had been using it for a while for a “card of the day” for her husband, while Amy had never seen the deck before, and I had only begun to explore it.  So between the three of us, we had a nice variety of experience with which to approach this deck.

Although Amy considered this deck to be beautiful (she called it “romantic”), she was at first rather dubious about its “readability.” However, after just one reading with it, she was beginning to warm up to it. Marieke came into the friend test saying that the deck was slowly growing on her as she used it for a daily one-card reading. This was her first time doing a multi-card reading with it, though, and afterward she said that she was pleasantly surprised with how well it worked.

During our readings, it was apparent that Amy and I tended to “translate” the cards to their RWS equivalents (to varying degrees) in order to read them. Marieke, however, was comfortable reading the cards as they were. In either case, however, we all were able to get meaningful readings out of these cards.

All of this reinforces my initial impression that it takes a bit of time and practice to become familiar enough with this deck to be able to use it with ease and proficiency, but that with such practice, it can become a very good deck for readings.

Details, details:

I have read the complaint that the card stock for this deck is flimsy, but I compared it to several of my other decks and honestly, it’s quite average.  Yes, I wouldn’t compare it favorably to a few self-published decks I have which are printed on extraordinarily good card stock. But for mass market decks these days, the card stock on this one is typical.

Another complaint about this deck that I’ve heard is that the cards are too small considering the intricate detailing of the images. I can understand that comment in that some of the details in Law’s paintings would be better served by larger cards.  But this deck is of an average size, and if the cards were significantly larger, they would be cumbersome for many people.  This size tradeoff is a tricky one, so my suggestion (in case Llewellyn is listening) would be to issue a special, large-sized edition of the deck too.

I’ve also heard that the art on the cards paled in comparison to the images of them that you can see on Law’s website, and this is true. However, to be fair, the images on the website are larger than the physical cards, and on a computer screen, they have light shining through them, like a stained glass window. What printed image can compete with that?

The Book:

The book that comes with this deck is about 250 pages (with lots of illustrations) and is separated into three basic parts, the first and third being written by Barbara Moore. The first section (“Introduction”) is an explanation of how to do a Tarot reading, and it is quite good considering its brevity. I’m not sure how well it will prepare a total novice for reading the cards, but it certainly beats the stuffing out of your typical “Little White Book” for that purpose.  The last part of the book presents a collection of spreads, ranging from very basic ones that should be useful for a novice to more detailed ones that more experienced readers may find useful, so there’s something for everyone there.

The middle of the book, which is the lion’s share of it, is written by the artist and covers the individual cards. Law’s lyrical explorations of the cards suggest meanings and interpretations, but they often avoid explicit explanations of many of the details in her images. With many of the details left unexplained, those who like to have things spelled out explicitly may be disappointed at times by the book. But if you prefer to explore things on your own, helped perhaps by hints and suggestive stories, then the book will serve you well. And of course if you’re an experienced Tarot reader, you may just ignore the book all together.

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By the way, are you wondering why the deck is named “Shadowscapes”? Law’s explanation (from her website) is that her paintings are of “shadows of reality that are almost grasped … in a dream-world made of light and absence of light.”

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Stephanie Pui-Mun Law is a watercolor artist whose professional work, mostly in the fantasy genre, has been used by various game and publishing clients. Previous to the Shadowscapes Tarot, her book “Dreamscapes, Creating Magical Angel, Faery & Mermaid Worlds with Watercolor” was published by North Light Books in 2008.
ISBN-13: 978-0738715797

All images from the Shadowscapes Tarot ©Stephanie Pui-Mun Law. For larger, higher-resolution images of the cards, see Law’s website: http://www.shadowscapes.com

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15 Comments
  1. Intriguing review. Now, I want another deck. This one. (sigh.) I like smaller decks for the physical comfort but the art work seems to call for a larger format to invite us into the detail. And I like VIII to be Strength! Thanks for your insight. CJ

    • Sorry to be a Tarot addiction enabler, CJ! :D
      Best,
      James

      • Too late. I’ve been collecting since I was 17 and I have accumulated many decades. ;-) But I just want the “good ones.”

  2. I love this deck! It’s absolutely glorious, there’s nothing out there like it. I haven’t worked much with it since I got it, but the readings I have done I had no trouble reading with it. It’s fresh, yet familiar. The silvery border was a really nice touch, too. It doesn’t scan, just ends up looking gray, but in person it really makes an impact. Now if only Llewellyn would find a better way to package these new decks…

    • Oh yes, I forgot to say anything about the silver borders. Thanks for mentioning them. They really are quite lovely. And I agree about the packaging, but once I open up a deck, I put it into a nice bag, so packaging is no longer an issue for me.
      Best,
      James

  3. Carmen permalink

    Thank you for your review on this deck. I have it as one of my main reading decks, and have truly found a depth to it that many dismiss because it’s pretty. I have found its main fault is that readings from it tend to be very spiritual, which is okay by me but many don’t want to hear that from their reading – they want nuts and bolts, real world stuff. In any case, it is refreshing to have a positive review from a talented tarotist such as yourself.

    I agree the cardstock is lacking — but I feel many are! I’m a riffler, and prefer a US Games style cardstock and lamination. I also agree that they’re a bit small, while understanding some don’t like large decks. But should Llewellyn take your hint, I will have one of the first! :)

    • OMG, NO! Not a rifler!
      Seriously, though, I never, ever riffle a deck. It ages them so fast, and Tarot decks aren’t cheap. Besides, I think my cards appreciate my gentle handling of them. :D
      As for the spiritual nature of your readings with it, I can understand how that could happen with this deck given the ethereal nature of the images. However, the readings that Amy, Marieke and I did were quite grounded in the real world.
      Best,
      James

  4. David permalink

    Thanks for this review, James. I have thought of purchasing this deck but have shelved that idea thinking that the deck may be too much into the romance genre. Now, with your review, I think that I will add it to my collection that is beginning to take up too much space. I like an intuitive deck, one that allows my mind to develop my interpretation. I believe that my students will enjoy the deck as well.

    • Glad the review helped, David.
      I’d put it more in the Fantasy genre than romance, but one of my friends did call it “romantic”
      Best,
      James

  5. Marieke permalink

    Hi James,

    Great review! You’ve said it all :)))

    Marieke

    PS I would also be one of the first to buy the larger deck (just in case Llewellyn is listening ;) )

  6. Amy B. permalink

    Love your review, James! You perfectly captured the essence of this beautiful deck.

  7. Amy and Marieke,
    Thanks for commenting … and for your “Friend Test” input
    Best,
    James

  8. Great review James… these cards are definitely not fluff.. I was happy to have been gifted two more of these decks for my birthday! Now I happy to say I have three… I enjoy that the deck seems to take many aspect of several different cultures in to consideration and blends them with ease. And yes once you get past there beauty that are full of substance and meanings just waiting to be unlocked.

  9. Thanks for weighing in on this, Shale!
    Best,
    James

  10. I love this deck so much. :) I’ve been breaking the cards down, and I keep finding new things, too. They are lovely, but hard and hurtful things can be beautiful, too.

    Thanks for the review! :)

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