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The Hourglass Throne coverEvery so often, stories come along which really challenge how you thinks of yourself as a reader. Not because they’re particularly groundbreaking on their own, but because everything about them seems like it should pass you by—they sound fun, they’re interesting to listen to your friends gush about, but, you know, they’re maybe not for you. That’s how I felt about The Tarot Sequence, K. D. Edwards’s urban fantasy series about a traumatised, orphaned heir from an Atlantean ruling family who is now trying to make his way in a society that by turns shuns and tries to use him, all while living with his human life partner (with whom he shares a telepathic bond from birth) and being supported by a benevolent but strict and distant mentor figure. It sounded fun, but was it for me? It turned out, after reading The Last Sun (2018) and The Hanged Man (2019)—the first two books in the series—the answer was a surprisingly passionate “yes,” and I’ve joined many fans of the series in awaiting The Hourglass Throne, which rounds out the first trilogy in what promises to be a nine-book series about Rune St. John, his search for the truth of what happened to him, and his ascent to power among the Arcana of Atlantis.

As of the events of The Hanged Man and the additional free story “Scenes from Quarantine” (which was written serially in 2020 during the first peak of the COVID-19 pandemic), that ascent has begun to gather a lot of momentum. Rune has now claimed his title and a seat on the Arcanum, making new allies in the process. He has also, as of the pandemic-set “Scenes from Quarantine,” cleared the various demonic presences which were haunting his family estate, and that’s our first clue that things are going to look quite different in The Hourglass Throne. In the previous two books, the Sun Estate has been depicted as dangerous and almost completely inaccessible to Rune and Brand, to the point that the first chapter of The Hanged Man involves a carefully planned, tense expedition into the house’s attic. That Rune’s greater resources have allowed him to overcome this problem so quickly—practically offscreen, as even “Scenes from Quarantine” doesn’t go into much detail on how the reclamation took place—works to shift his status from plucky outsider to independent player in New Atlantis’s elite. Alongside his social and political status, Rune has also come into a new understanding about how the powers of the Arcana work, particularly the specific secret magic called the majeure which only Arcana can wield, though at the cost of shortening their own lives. On top of that, Rune’s found family keeps growing, and so do their (often humorous) problems: there’s a whole gang of teenagers who require some degree of co-parenting, a young boy and his adopted dinosaur, seneschals to be hired, relationships with fellow Arcana to be managed, and, at the heart of it all, Rune’s relationships with his human companion Brand and his lover Addam Saint Nicholas, a scion of Justice.

On top of all of that, there’s a mysterious and powerful new Arcanum in town who has just murdered a large number of people inside a rejuvenation clinic and shown access to powers that the Arcana had previously thought lost after they left their homeland. Clued-in readers of The Hourglass Throne’s title might develop an early theory about who this strange, powerful “Lady Jade” could be, but, for Rune and company, this mystery stretches across most of the book, and it’s a mystery that takes the sense of menace and manipulation from previous books and dials it up to eleven. That’s because Lady Jade can do two things which hit right at Rune’s weak spots and at the reader’s fears: she can infiltrate Rune’s spaces, appearing at the Sun Estate alongside his friends and family and manipulating those around her (including Rune himself) to believe that she belongs there; and she has control of time and can apparently throw people back into old memories. For Rune, survivor of a prolonged rape and torture during the destruction of his family’s estate, taking up his father’s mantle and working to bring down his killers already means carefully managing his past trauma, and there are elements of his experience which he has desperately kept secret—and which he believes could tear his relationships apart if known. While it can become tedious to have characters trying to establish the villain’s identity when Edwards’s long-term readers know full well who this book is about, those moments in which we the characters falling for Lady Jane’s manipulations are terrifying: they twist softer, character-driven set pieces into tense waiting games. In these moments, the novel holds a metaphorical knife to the throat of the thing that The Tarot Sequence has spent all its time making sure we care most about: its characters.

Those characters, and the way Edwards builds Rune’s found family and creates new allies for him at every turn—even while maintaining the sense of an underdog narrative in a largely hostile world—are what make this series worth gushing about. The core worldbuilding of The Tarot Sequence doesn’t hold up well to close inspection: the court structure and the way that New Atlantis operates as part of the wider world are all roughly consistent, but there’s never more than a cursory answer to “but why is Atlantis structured around a mostly aesthetic interpretation of the Rider-Waite tarot deck?” (There’s also very little said about the colonial implications of taking Nantucket away from the USA to create a new settler colony, although Edwards does include Atlantean characters with significant, though unexplained, Wampanoag heritage). What New Atlantis—with its translocated human buildings and sprawling dock neighbourhoods and neatly contained but dangerous magical wilderness area—does do well, however, is set up a very particular aesthetic, enabling Edwards to create a society of quasi-feudal immortal elites, while also allowing Brand and Rune to feel like they could have been a cranky-but-loving American sitcom pairing in another life.

This aesthetic in turn supports the way that The Tarot Sequence uses the hurt/comfort trope, a common story structure in fan fiction: Rune’s past contains a terrible trauma which continues to affect him in messy, sometimes unexpected ways; but his present-day self expresses a recognisably cozy dynamic that distances itself from the apparently alien environment of “real” Arcana courts, including the one that Rune grew up in. Most of Rune’s dependents are also escaping trauma or neglect of one form or another: from his ward Matthias’s own abusive upbringing in the Lovers Court, to the arson attack that killed Kevan Dawncreek and left his children scarred, to the parental neglect suffered by Addam’s younger brother Quinn, a powerful seer whose physical frailty meant he was considered unimportant by his mother. All find safety and normality in Rune’s orbit, and, in turn, Rune finds safety with Brand and Addam (more on them soon!), as well as increasingly with his other allies on the Arcanum and in his court.

The series draws a clear line between signalling the moral complexity of characters like Lord Tower and Ciaran and holding the threat of betrayal over Rune’s head at every turn. The Hourglass Throne takes time over scenes that maintain this tension, interspersing the action with cozy moments and beachside revelries. In another series, this might feel like a diversion from the “real” story, but in The Tarot Sequence this is a feature, not a bug. This is one of a very few book series that could get me to read a “Scenes from Quarantine,” let alone acquiesce to making those stories a canonical (if not essential) part of the story. Sure, this means that The Hourglass Throne takes place against what we know was an experience of COVID which does not seem to have affected New Atlantis in any way (because they’re really good at public health), and that feels a little weird. But that’s not really what’s important here, because—yet again—what matters are the characters. So go with it.

But we still need to talk about Rune, Brand and Addam, because these three lie at the heart of The Tarot Sequence’s other big draw: depicting normalised queer masculinity, and love between men, in varied and nonexclusive forms. Back in The Last Sun, Edwards introduced the concept of “talla” bonds—basically the Atlantean equivalent of soulmates—only to immediately complicate the concept by having Addam, on meeting Rune, feel a talla bond that Rune doesn’t reciprocate. Rune does reciprocate Addam’s overall interest, however, and the two negotiate a romantic and sexual relationship which is sensitive to Rune’s trauma reactions around sex. Addam, however, has to balance his love for Rune, and his conviction that this is the most important romantic bond in his life, with the fact that Rune has a telepathic joined-from-birth connection with another man. While Rune and Brand’s relationship isn’t sexual (I’ll go on the record here and say that their being raised together since birth would make a sexual relationship between them a bit weird, though it certainly doesn’t feel like Edwards has ruled it out), it’s the kind of thing that walks all over the distinction between platonic and romantic. Instead of making this a source of tension between the three men, however, Edwards depicts how vulnerable this makes Addam feel at key moments and how it exacerbates his existing frustrations around Rune putting himself in danger instead of trusting his allies.

Meanwhile, Brand’s relationship with Rune is the source of a constant stream of often humorous insults and jibes, and we get to dig a little deeper into what that implies about their communication: because they feel each other’s feelings through the companion bond, there’s an assumption that they can’t hide anything from each other—and that saying what one or the other means is optional in that context. The Hourglass Throne puts that complete trust in doubt and reopens the question around tallas in a way which I hope means that the concept of having a single "soulmate" in a broad found-family context is going to get examined more closely. While there isn’t an immediate payoff, I appreciate that there is space being created to examine these relationships and the conflicts brewing within them in a way that isn’t setting up a love triangle or putting jealousy between characters front and centre.

Outside of the plot-central relationships, this is a queernorm world, and while the book’s focus on masculinity means that it’s mostly male characters at the centre of the book’s events, The Hourglass Throne retains the significant number of interesting women introduced in The Hanged Man, as well as depicting a non-binary teenager coming out in a supportive (though imperfect) environment.

All this adds up to a book that does what it sets out to do very, very well. In her review of The Last Sun for Strange Horizons, Marina Berlin pointed out how many of that book’s tropes came from fan fiction, and in The Hourglass Throne those elements now feel baked into the series’s DNA. But where transformative work enables a creator to take the events of an originating story, assume that the audience already knows how they play out, and dive headlong into the feelings and relationships that those stories leave unexplored, “fan-fiction-esque” original stories like The Tarot Sequence have to create both the story and the space for characters to react and grow within it. The Hourglass Throne shows Edwards juggling those elements to excellent effect, with a story that feels equally engaging whether it’s depicting high-stakes action sequences, setting up tense interactions with hidden villains, or letting its characters sneak off to the roof to smoke weed and snuggle. I wasn’t expecting to be drawn into the world of New Atlantis, but now I’m absolutely along for the ride, serialised side stories and all. If you’re not taking fan-fiction-rooted stories seriously, this series is one of several reasons why you should start.

Adri is a semi-aquatic mammal currently living in the UK, where she divides her spare time between reading, interacting with dogs, and making resolutions about doing more baking. She is a regular contributor at Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together and can also be found at Adri's Book Reviews or on Twitter at adrijjy.
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