How did this story come about?
Way back in 2009, John Joseph Adams was looking for stories for his The Way of the Wizard anthology and rather than come at the theme (magic and wizards) head on, I had this idea about a wizard who used playing cards instead of a spellbook to cast spells. That led to the story “Card Sharp,” which was accepted and published in the anthology and still remains one of my most popular stories. I wanted to continue to explore that world so I wrote “Second Hand,” a sequel which introduced the Hiram character and appeared in the Dead Man’s Hand anthology (as well as Lightspeed). Once I had those two, I knew I needed a third story to finish up the arc, though it took a few years to get it in the right shape.
How did you go about building your magic system?
Since I began with the idea of using playing cards as spells, I studied cards and learned that the suits have symbolic associations originally based on the Tarot. Take a suit and a number and you could imagine an effect based around that combination. Since that effect wasn’t specific and could vary, I imagined that there was a kind of gambling element to the magic—that you had to choose very carefully the effect you were trying for. Try too much with a card, try to exceed the value, and it might fail to work. Try something not fully in line with the suit and it might fail to work. But I think the most important decision was to have the deck of cards be finite. Decks of playing cards are almost always fifty-four cards (with Jokers) and so it made the stakes higher to be limited to fifty-four cards, fifty-four spells, and that limitation helped drive the motivations of the people who used them. If you could only ever do fifty-four wondrous things, when would you choose to use them? And how would that influence which “plays” you made?
So many fun twists! Do you set those up first or weave them in as you flesh out the story?
Some of the twists were part of the story from the beginning. “Card Sharp” was inspired by a Shakespeare play (which will probably be obvious to those who read it) and I decided to take inspiration for this story from another of Shakespeare play (which I assume will also be obvious). That helped give the story some of its shape but most of the twists came in the writing. I knew that I needed twists to help set up the main conflict of the story and to make it believable. I also thank my writing group, Altered Fluid, for helping to sharpen those twists and for improving the story. They were instrumental in helping to point out what wasn’t working in an earlier version of the story and helped me find the right moments.
Other than age and the experience that comes with it, what are the essential differences between Hiram and Quentin?
They are each shaped by their pasts and life experiences. Quentin is more of a tightly controlled individual with a strong will. When he gambles, it’s a very careful thing, honed over countless games, and he’s an unreadable, cold player. He’s also obsessive—when we meet him in “Card Sharp,” he’s obsessed with revenge, and later he’s obsessed with learning more about the Cards. Hiram is more of a drifter, more instinctive and ruled by his emotions and impulses. When he gambles, it’s by feel and it’s only his natural ability that helps him to succeed since he demonstrates a complete lack of control. Those traits come out in their use of the Cards. In psychological terms, Quentin leans more to the superego, whereas Hiram is more ruled by the id. Together they manage to find some kind of balance, but there’s obviously friction there.
Quentin features in a few of your short stories—is there more in store for him/us?
I definitely think that I’ll return to this world, though I’m not sure if Quentin will appear again. I originally thought of this story as an end to Quentin’s story (for now). Other characters, like Hiram, however, haven’t gotten as much screen time in terms of their arcs. I’ve started a novel with some new characters as well as a couple of familiar ones, but if and when that will see the light of day remains to be seen.
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