What IF tarot cards truly descended from twenty-two images created by the greatest early prophetess of ancient Egypt? What IF a box containing the images and scroll were stored at the Library of Alexandria until rescued by a young woman just before the library was burned by Julius Caesar? And what IF that young woman used her powerful intuition to ensure that the images and knowledge would be passed down through two thousand years to her direct descendant?

The Fortune Teller braids multiple stories together until they intersect in space and time (similar to the literary device used in “The Night Circus”) The contemporary story follows Semele Cavnow, an antiquarian appraisal expert, as she travels to Switzerland to appraise a private collection of manuscripts for auction. She discovers a book not included in the inventory that appears to have been written in the time of Cleopatra. As she begins to translate, she's stunned to discover that the manuscript is addressed to her! Semele also discovers that she feels an intensely compelling attraction to the estate's heir, Theo Bossard.

The chapter headings for sections about Semele's mysterious journey in the present are named for tarot cards. These alternate with translated sections of the manuscript written by Ionna around 50 BC. Semele and Ionna are both daughters of devoted librarians, and both possess powerful psychic abilities. As the story proceeds, Semele rediscovers and reclaims her suppressed abilities. But a few sections of the book are missing. Where did they go and who took them?

Semele's journey to Switzerland triggers a series of crimes. The manuscript is stolen and a friend is killed before Semele acknowledges she's at the center of a nefarious plot. Whose hand is behind the crimes? What is this invisible person trying to accomplish and why? Chapters are sometimes interspersed with brief text messages from this invisible culprit.

“The Fortune Teller” weaves a thrilling contemporary mystery with bits and pieces of literary history. The author includes snatches of real historical events that relate to ancient books and their transmission from the ancient world to the Wisdom School of Baghdad, to Renaissance Europe, and through the World Wars. The development of the tarot as a parlor game and then as a prophetic tool is a part of this history. Other divinatory methods like dream reading, graphology, and shell reading are mentioned and forward the storyline.

This is a fascinating novel that will delight readers attracted to magical realism and historical fiction. If you're one of those rare individuals who is still upset about the burning of the Library of Alexandria, if you're interested in tarot and the flowering of psychic abilities, this book supplies a lush and delightful fantasy that integrates these elements with thrilling mysteries and a dash of romance.

Unfolding ancient and exotic occult mysteries and the urgent pace of Semele's revelations make this novel a totally compelling book. Wonderful and recommended!

~review by Elizabeth Hazel

Author: Gwendolyn Womack
2017, Picador/MacMillan
354 pages, $16.00 pb