For a fantasy-loving nerd who first entered high school in 1990, Piers Anthony was inevitable. He doesn’t get as much recognition now as Robert Jordan or Raymond Feist, but for a large portion of the late 20th century he was churning out a stunning variety of YA-targeted scifi and fantasy novels, including the pun-heavy Xanth books, the Incarnations of Immortality series, Apprentice Adept, and more. Basically, if you were any kind of book-loving nerd in the ‘80s and ‘90s, you couldn’t avoid Piers Anthony.

Back then, I really didn’t discriminate in my genre reading, and having enjoyed pretty much everything else Anthony had written that I’d gotten my hands on, I assumed the Tarot trilogy would be much the same. From the covers, they looked like any other fantasy novels; there were scantily clad women, monsters, a rocket ship, and even some sort of chariot-dragon (that’s actually it above, by fantasy artist Rowena). About the only thing I found unusual was the cross-wearing hero saving the damsel in distress, as (Earth) religions virtually never entered into the genre novels I consumed so voraciously. But again, back then I would read pretty much anything that had a spaceship or a dragon on the cover, and these three novels—Vision of Tarot, Faith of Tarot, and God of Tarot—had both.

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I was expecting just another fun scifi/fantasy series. What I got blew my middle-school mind, because the Tarot trilogy is nothing less than Anthony’s complete and total exploration of religion, morality, sexuality, politics, education, and goodness knows what else. As recently as 2006, Anthony called Tarot “one of the most significant of my career” but then immediately added “therefore largely ignored by the critical and reviewing establishment, which is not equipped to comprehend it.” (In fact, it was supposed to be one massive, terrifying tome but publishers completely refused to deal with it until it was broken into three more palatable, and yet even less comprehensible, books.)

It begins innocently enough. In the near future, mankind has spread through the galaxy, standard procedure, until a group of colonists on a far-off, isolated planet named Tarot discovers it is home to a bizarre phenomenon called Animations. In essence, these Animations move like storms, but when people get caught up in them they all experiences totally different realities—realities in which they can experience just about anything, both grand and horrible, but they can also die. Also, I should point out that Bigfoot apparently lives on the planet. (Not the alien equivalent of Bigfoot; regular Earth Bigfoot. Just wanted to make that clear.)

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Besides the aforementioned Sasquatch, the planet is inhabited by dozens of different religions sects, from Methodists to Mormons to Muslims to Scientologists to Satanists to Communists (don’t ask) and they all hate other. They are convinced the Animations are the work of God, but they don’t know which one, and they certainly don’t trust each other to figure it out. So they ask Earth to send an unbiased representative to investigate, and that person is Brother Paul of the Holy Order of Vision, which is a small, monkish, extremely tolerant Christian sect that respects all religions and faiths equally.

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In Animation, Paul goes through a series of trials that make Dante’s journey through hell look like a picnic. Paul relives the darkest moments of his pre-religious life, he is dumped in a giant chalice full of excrement, he meets the Buddha and then visits a strange planet where the humans are forced to worship the religion of the local aliens, as an illusion to voodoo. He hangs out with Jesus and Mohammed in hell (don’t ask), attending a Satanic orgy/ritual sacrifice, and while visiting hell has his balls bitten off by a snake. He also, and I swear this is true, is at one point ejaculated through Satan’s penis when Satan masturbates. (These books were available in my middle-school library, for the record.)

I was not prepared mentally for any of this. I was raised Catholic, and while I had begun to suspect the veracity of some of what I was being told in Sunday School every week, my doubt was always positioned as being a bad Christian. Suddenly, I was thrust into a world where the histories and mythologies of all these religions were compared side-by-side, where the faiths of Lutherans, Mormons and Satanists were treated with equal weight. And that’s Anthony’s hypothesizes through the Tarot series, albeit in a very strange way—that all religions are essentially a worship of an unknown divine, and thus are all equally valid. By the end I actually agreed with Anthony—but not necessarily in the way the author intended. Because while I did determine that these religions did seem equally valid, it was because all the religions featured seemed equally esoteric, tenuous, and imperfect.

Look, even as a young teen I understood Piers Anthony should not be the final authority on any world religion. But what I did take to heart is how the characters of Tarot all believed their disparate religions with equal fervor, regardless of their tenets or their creation. And what these religions most had in common was the absolute conviction that their religion was right and everyone was wrong. They may have differed in how well or poorly they treated others, they may have varied in compassion for others, but they were completely secure in the correctness of their faiths—and, by extrapolation, that everyone else in their lives was excluded from the paradise that awaited them.

And why was everybody so certain they were right? It seemed only because of in which religion they were raised, They each had holy figures said to be divine. They all had holy books said to be perfect, yet written by imperfect human hands. They all had some sort of promises of life after death, although they varied in what happened to the non-believers. Again, I knew that I was getting a superficial view of these religions—but I also knew that if the basics were essentially the same, then what really would the finer details matter? Obviously, to believe in any religion you have to have faith—but for the first time, it dawned on me that all these believers believed in their religion absolutely. They all had faith that they were correct, and the “proof” they based their faiths on—holy books, prophets, etc.—were essentially the same things, differing mainly in content. How could I possibly be certain my religion had chosen correctly?

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I do not mean to proselytize here, and I absolutely don’t want this to be a personal sermon on my disbelief. All I want to say that as a young 13-year-old, reading a very strange scifi/fantasy novel when he should have been paying attention in geometry class, this realization—and these weird, lurid, absolutely bonkers books—made me realize something fundamental. I was forced to examine my own faith, my own beliefs, and compare them with others—and then suddenly I couldn’t find them anymore.

I am grateful for the realization, even though I cannot recommend anyone read these books—they have absolutely not aged well. Rereading them these past weeks I am shocked I got anything other than a headache and a lingering sense of filth and guilt out of them, as the books are frequently a bit racist, tremendously sexist, and, if you hold any sort of religious beliefs, possibly profane. For example, Paul goes back in time to hang with Jesus for a bit, and the revelation that Jesus had a botched castration—meaning he had no human sexual needs—is one of the series’ least bonkers religious hypotheses. Additionally, the main female character exists almost solely to seduce men or be raped, and an adult man marries a 12-year-old girl. Also, the entire planet of Tarot ends up worshipping Satan. It’s absolutely bonkers, if not outright disturbing.

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I was too young and too naïve to note Anthony’s purple, lurid prose, his less-than-complimentary portrayals of women, or his incredibly skeezy habit of sexualizing underage characters, and for that I’m extremely grateful. Instead I got one of the most profound reading experiences of my young life, a story that forever altered my personal trajectory and, for all its faults and insanity, had a profound effect on me and who I am today.

Not bad for a book series where the hero has to fight Bigfoot.


Contact the author at rob@io9.com.