All Our Hidden Gifts: A (WIRoB) Review

This piece originally appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books:

All Our Hidden Gifts by Caroline O'Donoghue Unlike her successful and much older siblings, Maeve Chambers has never been known as an exemplary student. While Maeve and her former best friend Lily O’Callaghan both made it out of the slow reading class where they met, school is still a struggle for Maeve. A lot of things are a struggle for her when “sometimes frustration and rage surge through [Maeve], sparking out in ways [she] can’t predict or control.”

Adrift at her Catholic school, St. Bernadette’s, where she struggles to keep up with classwork and make new friends after her estrangement from Lily, Maeve is familiar with detention. “The story of how [Maeve] ended up with the Chokey Card Tarot Consultancy can be told in four detentions, three notes sent home, two bad report cards, and one Tuesday afternoon that ended with [her] locked in a cupboard.” After locating a mysterious deck of tarot cards while cleaning out said cupboard, Maeve discovers an unexpected knack for interpreting the cards for herself and classmates earning a certain notoriety (and some pocket money) as her reputation grows. Every card is easy to learn and understand except for one: The Housekeeper–a card that has no known meaning in any tarot guide Maeve can find.

What starts as a mysterious extra card soon invokes disastrous results when Maeve is goaded into offering a reading to Lily in front of their entire class. The Housekeeper’s appearance leads to harsh words between the former friends before Lily’s sudden disappearance.

Without a clear explanation for what happened to Lily, Maeve knows she’s an obvious person of interest in the case. As she tries to understand what happened to Lily and if it connects to the sudden increased popularity of a local fundamentalist group called the Children of Brigid, Maeve realizes that she, and the Housekeeper card, may have played a bigger role in Lily’s disappearance than she realized.

With help from Lily’s older brother Rory (Roe to those closest to him) and new friend Fiona, Maeve will have to uncover the truth behind the Housekeeper and her own affinity for magic if she wants to bring Lily home. Maeve describes Fiona as having an Irish first name, an English last name (Buttersfield), brown skin from her Filipina mother and limited “patience for other people’s bullshit” as many people try to fit her into various boxes. Most of the rest of the cast is presumed white.

All Our Hidden Gifts is Caroline O’Donoghue’s YA debut and the projected start of a series. Find it on Bookshop.

Black and white illustrations by Stefanie Caponi of different tarot cards–including the infamous Housekeeper–are included throughout the novel. Readers will learn tarot basics along with Maeve as she begins to interpret cards while readers familiar with tarot will recognize key symbology and common card meanings. Readers especially well-versed in tarot might also recognize the cover artwork by Lisa M. Sterle, the artist behind the Modern Witch Tarot deck and guide journal.

O’Donoghue folds many different elements into this often sprawling narrative that tries to unravel the dual mysteries of Lily’s disappearance and the Housekeeper card while also tackling increased intolerance throughout the Irish city of Kilbeg as escalated by the Children of Brigid and their eerily savvy American leader, Aaron. Mysticism and folklore add another layer to this already packed story as one character asserts “every culture you can think of has some version of the White Lady” whether or not she is called the Housekeeper.

Against this larger backdrop, Maeve tries to understand her–and the Housekeeper’s–role in Kilbeg’s unrest while navigating her new friendship with Fiona. Maeve’s fledgling romance with Roe–who sees his pronouns and gender identity as negotiable as he works on expressing his truest self with his chosen name and genderqueer fashion—adds some sweetness to an otherwise grim story trying to find Lily.

Flashbacks to the events leading up to Maeve and Lily’s falling out contrast with the tense present as the story builds to a dramatic conclusion that readers can only hope will be followed with a second book.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, The Scapegracers by Hannah Abigail Clarke, A Dark and Starless Forest by Sarah Hollowell, Summer of Salt by Katrina Leno, These Witches Don’t Burn by Isabel Sterling

The Game of Triumphs: A Review

The Game of Triumphs by Laura PowellFifteen-year-old Cat is well acquainted with London’s seamy underside–one perk of living across from a casino and on the same block as a strip joint. The tawdry Soho neighborhood doesn’t bother her. Cat is used to moving around with her aunt/guardian Bel. She’s used to blending into the background and being invisible. Neighborhoods don’t change that.

But a mysterious game played out on the streets of London and in a strange world called the Arcanum can change everything. A chance encounter on the Tube draws Cat in the dangerous but alluring world of the Game of Triumphs where players use Tarot cards imbued with powers to compete for the ultimate triumph–fame, fortune, justice or something else entirely–it can all be yours with the turn of a card.

Cat doesn’t play games and she doesn’t believe in any of the Game’s magic nonsense. But as Cat learns more about the Game she realizes this isn’t the first time she encountered the Game. Playing can be deadly but with stakes so high surely the rewards are worth the risk in The Game of Triumps (2011)* by Laura Powell.

The Game of Triumphs draws heavily from Tarot cards for the symbolism behind the Game’s cards and the nuances of their play within the Game. As someone with a passing interest Tarot and card games, I was immediately drawn to this book (the intriguing cover didn’t hurt either). Unfortunately, the book did not live up to my expectations.

Cat is a surly heroine, determined to go it alone even if that might be to her own detriment. Her reluctance to accept help or any kind of support got old very fast. Similarly her dismissive tones about Tarot and role playing games were irritating–particularly as her attitude persisted even as she drew deeper into the game. While Powell went to great pains to explain Cat’s past and her motivations, none of it ever felt truly authentic.

Her companions in the novel felt similarly one dimensional, partly because they were introduced so late in the story and partly because I never connected with any of them. Worse, the characters never seemed to connect with each other instead merely falling in together for lack of better options.

The world Powell has created as well as the Game itself are very complex and well-realized. While readers will start the book as confused about things as Cat Powell quickly explains everything readers need to know. Sadly, with so much setup for the background of the story, the actual plot felt rushed with most of the action being packed into the last hundred pages of the novel.

On one hand, that makes The Game of Triumphs a book that moves rather slowly with an abrupt ending. On the other hand, there is now the potential that the sequel The Master of Misrule** will be a much stronger, much more exciting book. Only time will tell.

*This book was originally published in the UK in 2009.

**The Lord of Misrule was published in the UK in 2010. Since the first book was picked up for US publication by Knopf it stands to reason that the sequel will eventually make its way here as well.

Possible Pairings: Rise of the Darklings by Paul Crilley, Incarceron by Catherine Fisher, The Card Turner by Louis Sachar, Misfit by Jon Skovron