Italo Calvino is always a surprise, and this slim volume of involuted stories absorbs a medieval sense of superstition and astonishment into its bones. The characters--struck dumb around the dining table of a castle they stumbled upon in the forest--have nothing with which to relate the events of their journeys but a pack of tarot cards handed them by their host. The way that they interpret the images on the cards dictates their stories. In the first section ("The Castle of Crossed Destinies"), the painted Renaissance tarots are laid out like a neat parquet of magical transformations, alchemic quests, bartered souls, and near death, with each guest finding the beginning of his own tale in some card of his companion's; in the second ("The Tavern of Crossed Destinies"), while everyone scrabbles for the cheaper, printed tarots, the fantastic stories of the characters yield, by the patterns they make, the archetypal stories of our culture: Hamlet, Oedipus, Faust. Each of the sections is fully illustrated with precise miniature engravings of the cards the characters use, and there will be eight full-color reproductions of tarots painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Dukes of Milan in the 15th century. But this is by no means a pretty picture book: the narrative is lean and clear and an unusual delight.