Deck Reviews: The Yuletide Tarot, Witch Sister Tarot, and The River Oracle

One of the really fun parts of my career is the opportunity to get a close look at new contributions to my field. This takes the form of books I write recommendations for or contribute to, projects and events I’m consulted on, and newly released divinatory tools. Llewellyn Worldwide occasionally ships me care packages of new Tarot and Oracle decks for review (THANK YOU, LLEWELLYN!). If you follow my Facebook page, you know that I do a live play test once a month on one of those decks. My favorite way to review a deck is to see it in action.

As a Tarot reader, I cut my teeth in spaces where time is constrained (the Day Room of a barracks, Conventions where folks have 15 minutes til their next panel, Pagan festivals where folks are on their way to the next workshop or ritual), so I have a style of reading and a style of deck I prefer. I’m quite direct as a reader – in most half hour sessions I can manage at least two full spreads plus one or two clarifying questions. I do not beat around the bush and it’s one of the things my clients like about me. Due to my reading style, I also have a deck type that I prefer: artwork where the emotional core of a card is readily apparent in the card. Decks where the suit cards are not fully illustrated do not interest me. A picture of 4 swords? Hard pass. A picture of a man in deep sleep, completely unperturbed by the goings-on around him? Yes. Definitely.

Part of why I prefer decks with evocative artwork is ease of use – remembering the meaning of a card is much simpler when the interpretation is so immediate. The main reason, though, is that I read for others. A handful of my clients are also tarot readers, but most are not, which means they do not know the system and its interpretations at all. Being able to show a card to a client, point to the sleeping man and explain that if they don’t stop and rest they’re going to burn out, makes a reading much easier for that client to remember.

In addition to evocative artwork, I evaluate for inclusivity and intersectionality. Most tarot decks depict white, cisgender, heterosexual, slender humans. Like many aspects of white supremacy, this tendency to depict heterosexual white narratives in tarot artwork seems to lurk in the blind spot of white and straight privilege. The tide is turning and decks are becoming more diverse, but progress remains slow.

Lastly, I evaluate for flow – does the deck work well as a whole? Do the cards speak clearly? This is more on the metaphysical side and part of why I test decks with live play-tests. Wanna see if a deck works? Open the floor and have 50 strangers ask random questions.

Over the past few months, I play-tested three decks live and am ready to give my full reviews for each. Deep gratitude to Llewellyn Worldwide for sending me such beautiful tools to review!

The Yuletide Tarot – 8 out of 10 stars

I’ll be honest – I went into this one with some unhelpful preconceived notions. First, I’ve historically struggled with the winter holidays. Several people I dearly love died in December, and the grief tends to drown out the joy of the season. Secondly, I often find “gimmick” decks to be frustrating. 

I was overjoyed to be proven wrong by this deck. 

Nuts and bolts first: the deck is well-printed on vivid, smooth card stock that spreads well. It’s a comfortable size in my hands (I’m of average height). The version of the Yuletide Tarot I was testing includes the book as part of the set, and the box in this case was excellent – sturdy with a magnetic closure, meaning that if you don’t have a special box to keep your cards in, the box that comes with the deck will work well for storage. The book that comes with the cards is fantastic – it’s large and printed in full color, which means that the reader can get a really good look at detail on the artwork that might not be as noticeable in the smaller size of the individual cards. There are some cute Yuletide-specific spreads at the back of the book to really amp up the holiday-focused nature of the deck. 

One of the things I loved the most about this deck was the sense of humor depicted in the cards. For example, the 10 of Swords depicts a snowman being stabbed with candy canes. Evocative, accurate, and also hilarious. There’s a warmth and sweetness that seems to run throughout the deck as well – many cards focus on the simple rooms of the home, family members, and snowfall. As I was working with the deck, it reminded me of the good things about the holiday season and why so many people love it. 

Additionally, and more importantly, the deck is fairly inclusive. The humans depicted in the cards are multiracial, vary in age, and although slender bodies are more prominent, they are not the only bodies shown. The cards are heteronormative, though – cards that include romantic connection in their meaning depict heterosexual relationships. 

The Yuletide Tarot weaves some lovely older holiday themes into its artwork: druids harvesting mistletoe, Krampus putting naughty children in baskets, the Mari Llwyd, etc. It’s truly a Yuletide deck, not a Christmas deck. 

The only downside to the Yuletide Tarot is that it is specific to time of year – I’m not sure this one would feel right if you need a reading in, say, July. But, as a fun deck to break out as the year begins to wind to its close, it’s perfect. The tradition of fortune telling around Yuletide continues to this day and this deck would be a great fit for that practice. 

I give the Yuletide Tarot a solid 8 out of 10 stars, two deducted for seasonal specificity and heteronormativity. The live play-test of the deck can be found here if you’d like to see it in action

The Witch Sister Tarot – 6 out of 10 stars

Nuts and bolts: The cards are beautiful and well-printed. However, straight out of the box, the gloss coating is *intense* – these cards may fly out of your fingers and prove challenging when it comes to shuffling. Gloss coating does wear off over time and the excessive lube should resolve with more use. The artist also chose to rename and re-envision some of the Major Arcana. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that, but it does mean there’s a learning curve for those of us whose Tarot knowledge is more traditional. 

The Witch Sister Tarot set that I was using is also a book-and-deck set. The box it comes in is wonderfully sturdy with a magnetic clasp. Like the Yuletide Tarot, it means that the deck can be stored in the box safely if the reader doesn’t have another box for it. The book that comes with the deck is printed in full color, allowing for in-depth exploration of the artwork. 

Y’all, I really wanted to love this deck. There’s so much about it that’s fantastic – lots of crow and raven imagery, evocative symbols, and the expressions on the human figures depicted are fantastic. It’s lovely to see femme presenting characters with expressions of strength, rage, or wisdom rather than benign pleasantness or indifference. Although the Lovers card depicts a heterosexual romantic pairing, it’s one of the only cards to depict romance at all. And, there are several cards depicting humans that could be any gender. The ages depicted run the gamut as well – it’s lovely to see older human figures in cards that talk about power or agency. So many times, it seems like Tarot decks think the human life cycle ends at 45. 

However, there’s a giant, glaring absence in this deck: racial diversity. Every single human face depicted is white. In a deck that specifically focuses on witchcraft, it’s completely unacceptable to have such white-centered art. If we want people to feel welcome in witchcraft, the tools need to reflect that value system. So, although I loved a lot about this deck, I would not use it, and I’m deducting four points for centering a white narrative. Damn shame – there’s a lot of good art here, but it flat-out misses one of the most important marks. Six out of 10 stars. The live play-test of the deck can be found here if you’d like to see it in action.  

The River Oracle – 9 out of 10 stars

This is another deck where I had some preconceived notions that weren’t helpful. You see, I don’t like most oracle decks. I’m a taroiste, and a bit of a snob about it. My own experience with oracle decks is that they are too limited in scope, the artwork is frequently too simplistic, and they sacrifice accuracy for the theme. It was wonderful to have every one of those ideas contradicted by the River Oracle. 

Nuts and bolts: Another wonderful, sturdy deck box with a magnetic clasp. I’m so glad these are becoming more mainstream in divinatory card decks. The book is in full color, but the pages are only slightly larger than the cards. This is helpful for looking up cards if you’re stumped for a meaning, but it doesn’t give much additional space to the artwork. One other interesting thing about the book is that the given meanings of the cards are fairly sparse – this deck wants you to find the meaning in the cards that’s right for you based on how the artwork makes you feel. For an intuitive reader, it’s an excellent choice. For those of us who prefer specific meanings that we learn, it will be more challenging. Personally, I like it for this deck.

The cards are incredibly vivid, high quality, on good card stock with a nice gloss. They are oversize, which gave me a little trouble, but if you haven’t spent 20-plus years becoming habituated to standard tarot card size it won’t be as much of an issue for you. They may also be wonderful for folks of larger stature who find standard card sizes too small. The image on the back of the cards is dreamy and vague enough that if you like to include reversals in your readings, someone drawing cards won’t be able to tell from the back if the card is facing a different direction than its neighbors. 

I adore the artwork in this deck. Each card is layer upon layer of imagery, color, and texture. The longer you look at each card, the more you see. The combinations of images are dreamlike and highly evocative, different threads coming together to create a beautiful tapestry of meaning. Nick Bantock, the artist, absolutely nailed the subconscious theme he was going for. For folks who find Tarot too restrictive, or who simply prefer intuitive reading, it would be hard to beat this deck. The richness and depth lends itself incredibly well to divination. 

The deck shows a wide variety of figures, humans of many races and shapes, and the shifting color palette and dreamy quality of the cards means that it’s less human-figure-centric, which immediately improves a deck’s intersectional possibilities. 

The River Oracle is definitely a keeper. Despite having only 48 cards, the incredible design of each card means that a world of interpretation is possible. 9 out of 10 stars, one deducted for card size, although as I mentioned earlier, that may work well for folks with bigger hands than mine. Here’s the link to the live play-test in order to see the deck in action

If you’re interested in joining a play-test, there are several coming up soon: The Circe Tarot on Thursday, March 12th, at noon eastern, the De La Nuit Lenormand on Thursday, April 11th, at noon eastern, and the Inner Light Tarot on Thursday, May 9th, at noon eastern. Hit the Events section of my Facebook page to stay up to date on upcoming play-tests.

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