Genres: Queer Protagonists
Representation: Queer Protagonists, mlm or M/M, normalised bi/pansexuality, normalised group marriage, sexual assault survivor, trauma
Published on: 17th December 2019
The last member of a murdered House tries to protect his ward from forced marriage to a monster while uncovering clues to his own past.
The Tarot Sequence imagines a modern-day Atlantis off the coast of Massachusetts, governed by powerful Courts based on the traditional Tarot deck.
Rune Saint John, last child of the fallen Sun Throne, is backed into a fight of high court magic and political appetites in a desperate bid to protect his ward, Max, from a forced marital alliance with the Hanged Man.
Rune's resistance will take him to the island's dankest corners, including a red light district made of moored ghost ships; the residence of Lady Death; and the floor of the ruling Convocation, where a gathering of Arcana will change Rune's life forever.
I devoured this book in under a day.
Do you know how long it’s been since that happened to me? I’ve been struggling to concentrate on any book at all, never mind actually finishing one; that’s why my currently-reading shelf on Goodreads contains 49 books – I keep starting things and being unable to finish. It’s not a problem with the books, but with me, and I could talk a bit about why but that’s really not the important thing here.
The important thing is that I could not put this book down. After spending the entire year struggling to finish things, I was finally handed a book that gave me no choice in the matter.
I was hooked, I was glued to the pages, I was mesmerised.
This book, you guys. This book just set the new standard for fantasy fiction, and the bar is now set so high you can’t see it from the ground.
I genuinely don’t know where to start.
So…I’m going to try to go non-conventional again. Since that ended up working pretty well when reviewing The Last Sun.
The Arcana who rule New Atlantis are, in-world, the inspiration for the Major Arcana of the human tarot; we meet Lord Tower and glimpse Ladies Lovers and Justice in Last Sun, and Rune himself – the main character and first-person narrator of the series – is the heir of the fallen Sun Throne. His father was murdered and his court destroyed while Rune was a teenager, and his social standing is therefore a little complicated; on the one hand, he’s technically-sort-of Lord Sun, as the last remaining member of his House. On the other hand, he hasn’t claimed his father’s seat on the Arcana council, and doesn’t have a court of his own – to say nothing of the magical, political, and financial power wielded by the sitting Arcana Lords and Ladies. Although he does call on his rank in a conversation with Lady Justice in Last Sun – and she acknowledges it, calling him ‘brother’ in a gesture of intense and courteous respect – for the most part, he’s treated as a Scion – the son of one of the Arcana Houses – but not one of the Arcana outright, by most of the Atlanteans he interacts with.
Last Sun is aptly named, because despite reading as a full (and excellent) book on its own, when set alongside Hanged Man, it suddenly looks much more like an introduction – almost a prologue. Last Sun introduced us to the eponymous character, the last surviving member of House Sun, Rune. It showed us who and what he is, taught us about his abilities and the world he lives in – it set the stage, if you like.
Hanged Man? Hanged Man is the story really and truly starting. Actually, no, I’d prefer to use another term: Edwards doesn’t start Rune’s story here.
He fucking unleashes it.
And so naming the second instalment of this series Hanged Man is about far more than the fact that Lord Hanged Man of the Arcana is cast as Rune’s enemy and opponent in this book. Just as Last Sun was both literally about the last Sun and, as I covered briefly at the end of my review, a book that embodied the meaning of the Sun card in traditional tarot, so does Hanged Man reflect and actualise the meaning of its respective card. In tarot, the Hanged Man stands for surrender to truth, change, and fate; it represents a time of change – changes that cannot be denied – and an instruction to let go of the things that have been holding you back. It’s time to shift perspective and shift gears; your old way of life is ending, and it’s time to let it go. It’s time to start – or get back to – your life’s purpose.
Those two words, then – Hanged Man – aren’t just a title; they sum up and embody the entire book. In two words.
Am I allowed be in awe of this? Of a title? Of how Edwards not only managed to write a freaking incredible book (and it is, I will get to that when I stop geeking out, I swear), but managed to – to translate all the intricate layers of symbolism and meaning in the Hanged Man of the tarot into a story in the Tarot Sequence? Because this book is the card. The card – and that title, those two words – is the story.
This is the book where Rune lets go of his old life, and steps up, and becomes exactly who he’s meant to be. This is the book where everything changes. This is the book where the last Sun rises.
I’ve spun out this much analysis of nothing but the freaking title. That should tell you exactly how many rich, jewelled layers there are to absolutely everything in this book. How perfect and well-researched and well-considered is every. tiny. detail. Nothing is here just because it sounds good, or looks good. Nothing in this book is here just because it’s cinematic, or it’s expected, or it’s marketable. Nothing is here because it’s just easier this way, or quicker, or conventional. There are no cheap thrills or short-cuts, nothing placed just for shock value, no literary short-hand or catering to the masses or the industry or even the fans. No.
Everything – every last single thing – is a fucking masterpiece. And I mean that in the oldest sense of the word; I’m talking about the piece that a craftsman would design and create and finish to be named a Master of their guild, of their craft. The piece that made their name and their place in the world and in history.
Keith Edwards, take a bow. You are, in the truest sense of the words, a master storyteller.
How am I supposed to talk about this book properly? How do I tell you about every sneaky red herring placed just-so to trick me into thinking I knew what was coming, how the story would go – and how every twist and turn therefore took me completely by surprise, in the best possible way? How do I tell you about how the very first chapter, in context of what I knew from reading book one, nearly made me scream out loud and set my fitness bracelet beeping in alarm, because my heartbeat had spiked so high? How do I tell you about every subverted cliche and trope and expectation without spoilers? How do I describe the way this book played me like a yo-yo, making me laugh like a hyena one second and tear up with my heart in my throat the next? And who of those who’ve read Last Sun will believe me when I say that Hanged Man made me love these characters even more when I, too, thought that such a thing was impossible?
There’s a moment, relatively early in the book, when Rune and Brand are searching a room and find a clue. And then – because this isn’t Hollywood, where there can only ever and always be One Big Clue – they keep searching, in case there’s another clue. Because that’s how actual reality works, that’s how life works, that’s how a story works when your characters and your world and your magic are so fucking real they make the room around you feel two-dimensional. And Hanged Man is packed full of moments like that; small, casual, easy to miss if you haven’t spent your whole life reading books and watching films where those moments never happen.
There’s another moment – actually even earlier than the one I just described – where New Atlantis’ police have a protocol in place to deal with A Thing, and the protocol is triggered, and The Thing doesn’t go down the way it would in a film, or in another book. Think about every time you’ve wondered ‘where the hell are the cops?’ while something fantastical or dramatic is happening in a story; or every time a story’s rubbed you the wrong way because you know, in real life, this is where the security cameras would be a problem, or the amber alert would go out, or they’d use the bad guy’s IP address to find him. Here, those things happen, because the Tarot Sequence world is detailed enough – real enough – that Edwards has thought it all through. Of course the police have procedures for this. Of course there are safeguards to prevent that. Of course you could use this spell to do that thing, if you were just smart enough to think of it. (And I detailed how much I loved Rune’s out-of-the-box thinking, and how much it tells us about his personality and backstory, in my last review).
This is a world that actually works. I don’t know how to emphasise that enough, or express how much of a delight it is to read about it. Or read about characters who are people instead of just avatars of the plot.
And they are people. They are absolutely people, both the familiar faces from Last Sun and the wonderful new ones we meet for the first time in Hanged Man – there are so many more women, and so much more racial diversity this time around! And all of them are so real I forgot I was reading fiction – I forgot I was reading, and a huge part of that is how they are not action heroes, they make their choices not based on how cool it would look on a screen but on how safe it is, how economic in terms of time and effort and risk, what it will cost. I know I’ve said it already, but that just gives an incredibly unique flavour to the entire book. The best writers can make you hold your breath during fight scenes, but there’s always that tiny bit of separation between reader and story – you know everyone’s going to come out okay, no matter what. It’s not real. And you can tell it’s not real because –
Okay, let me give a brief example. One of my favourite tv shows (which just started airing its third season) is S.W.A.T., a show about, you’ll never guess, the work and lives of an American S.W.A.T. team. And one of the tiny details that made me sit up and pay attention, back when I was giving the first few episodes a go, was how, when sweeping a location, none of the officers ever entered an uncleared room alone. They would stop, wait for another officer to tap their shoulder to confirm they had back-up, and then entered the area. It’s an incredibly small thing, but it adds an enormous depth of realism that separates it from more generic law and order shows.
Hanged Man – and Last Sun too, but HM even more so – is like that. Edwards uses carefully placed, deceptively subtle details to make Rune and Brand’s world completely three-dimensional; a casual mention of how Rune holds his sword upon entering a new room, for example, implies years worth of backstory and serves to underline the intensity and nature of his and Brand’s bond (because Brand definitely had more than a small part in training Rune). The question Brand asks in a discussion – the areas in which he’s ignorant and Rune is informed – conveys more backstory, more about his and Rune’s dynamic, and worldbuilding (in what it tells us about Atlantean culture and the place of a Companion within it). The food served at a particular meal tells the reader so much about the complicated power structure and balance of the Arcana council. All of it is quiet and subtle, none of it is shoved in the reader’s face, and it’s easy to absorb without consciously recognising it, so that at the end of a chapter you’re left with rock-solid understandings about this, that, or the other – but have no idea where you got them from until you go back over the chapter with a fine-toothed comb, dissecting details.
And the thing is that you can do either – you can read this without deliberate analysis, or you can turn over each sentence beneath a jeweller’s glass, and you won’t miss out either way. Both approaches will leave you freaking delighted with the book. It’s win/win no matter what kind of reader you are.
I’m geeking out again. Okay. Let me try and drag this back on track.
It’s not very often that we see a story with normalised queerness – set in a society that doesn’t bat an eye at various expressions of sexuality. It’s much more common in fanfiction than traditionally published works. It’s definitely rare enough to make Last Sun notable for that alone, but it was the way that LS made sexuality a complete non-issue – not even of secondary or tertiary importance, but completely dismissed in the face of the actual issues, like dark magics and conspiracies, that Rune and Brand had to deal with in book one – that made it really special.
Hanged Man doesn’t just continue the trend – it turns the dial up to 11. The deconstruction and/or ignoring of societal gender norms and toxic masculinity that we saw in Last Sun is even clearer here; New Atlantis isn’t a utopia by any means, but the characteristics and dynamics of Rune and Brand, Addam and Quinn and Max, are stunningly healthy, and called out when they’re not (one of my favourite moments is just one such calling-out, and how beautifully it’s handled). In fact, HM strikes me as an overtly queer book – not in the sense that anyone’s sexuality is the focus of the story, because it absolutely isn’t, but in the sense that Hanged Man just flat-out rejects traditional conventions and expectations when it comes to anything touching on love – and does so completely without fanfare. I mentioned when reviewing Last Sun that it made me so happy to see a queer story focused on a platonic instead of romantic relationship, featuring a male lead who was sexually shy. Hanged Man explores those things in greater depth without ever lecturing the reader about it or Making A Point; the bonds of brotherhood when stripped of posturing and allowed to be emotionally open, the different ways people can love each other and how those loves interact, and what love can look like in a society that takes it for granted that one person can’t fulfil all the needs and desires of another. As a polyamorous person, this aspect of the Tarot Sequence’s worldbuilding – Atlantis’ bemusement at the concept of monogamy, and the prevalence of group marriage – has always been dear to me, but the balance Brand, Rune and Addam find with each other is almost painfully perfect, not least because it involves the interaction and interweaving of platonic and romantic bonds. The moments between Rune and Addam in this book, as they more clearly explore and define their relationship, were breathtaking in their quiet, perfect simplicity, stripped of the drama and angst another author would have given them.
Even sweeter and richer, though, is how strongly the theme of Found Family runs through this book. As Rune begins to face the heritage he’s mostly left untouched for his adult life – honestly, I can’t resist making this metaphor: the more he becomes the Sun, the more dear people he draws into his orbit. If we saw the beginnings of it in Last Sun, in Hanged Man Rune truly forms his own solar system of loved ones, and I’m not sure he himself sees how they all revolve around him, how helpless they are in the face of his gravity-well of – charisma is the wrong word; I suppose the only correct one is pulcrra, as they say in Old Atlantean – and to understand what that means, you’ll have to read the book.
But the metaphor of Rune-as-sun is one that really works, because gods, Rune just – he gives and he gives and he gives. I’ve never seen a male character be such a fount of light and warmth to those around him – I’ve never seen a male character be allowed to be. Rune’s character defies gender roles; I know I keep saying that, but that’s because I’m struggling to put it into words. I want to say Rune displays mothering characteristics, but that makes him sound like some kind of mother hen, and it’s not that at all. I mean he’s protective in a way that men aren’t generally allowed to be, in our (Western, industrialised) culture; he’s kind and gentle and compassionate in a way that laughs at any attempt to define it as masculine or feminine. And at the same time, he is fierce and deadly and ruthless, but in a way that is completely lacking in alpha-male pride or any of the other characteristics I associate with a warrior archetype. He doesn’t posture, and he doesn’t fly into a rage when insulted, he knows his limitations and isn’t ashamed of them, can’t be flattered or tricked into believing he’s more than he is – or less.
He is the Sun, and all those who come into his orbit to stay are given his light and warmth unstinting.
And at the same time, I have never identified with a character so much in my LIFE as when Rune holds off on explaining his plan to make a specific dramatic gesture…because he’s embarrassed about being so Extra. If I wasn’t already head-over-heels for him, that would have been the moment I crash-landed into loving him, because holy hells, ALL THE YES!
Look: there are so many specific things I’d like to talk about – so many lines I’d love to quote – and I can’t, because spoilers. Because they will hit you so much harder if you don’t see them coming. You’ve no idea how hard it is not to burst into song about our kids and virsa pulcrra and Arcana Majeure; about we walk different roads and office hours and Companions of Atlantis; about I want you to look at me and you are my kin and barista; about there are rules and they will be loved and headlines – oh, the paeans I could write to headlines! But I mustn’t.
What you must do, instead? Is read. This. Book.
And then come back so we can sing paeans about it together.