A playful, ingenious, frequently moving but occasionally perplexing celebration of our persistent search for answers to the ultimate questions--Who are we? Where have we come from? Where are we going?--disguised as a fairy tale/adventure. This Norwegian writer's first novel, Sophie's World (1994), used the guise of a novel-within-a-novel to present a droll history of philosophy, apparently intended for adolescents. It's unclear this time out who Gaarder imagines his audience to be. While the bare outlines of the story (a young boy and his despairing father go in search of the boy's mother, who has abandoned them; the boy is given a book, possibly magical, by a kindly old man; the book unlocks a series of remarkable revelations about the boy's life) might seem to be aimed at children or young adults, some of the imagery is dauntingly arcane. The book the boy is given is the history of two men, marooned 50 years apart on a magical island. The first man, his imaginative powers mysteriously enhanced, brings a deck of playing cards to life. The second man (the grandson of the first) sets in motion a series of events that lead to the island's destruction; he and the Joker escape. The Joker, who ``sees too deeply and too much,'' is the only one of the cards to wonder about his origins and purpose in life. Hans Thomas, the little boy, turns out to be the descendant to these castaways. The Joker, ever-youthful, takes an interest in the boy, helping Hans and his father to reunite with Hans' mother. There are passages here (on the wonderful island, the lives of the figures who have emerged from the deck of cards, the debates on life's purpose) that are ingenious and startling, reminiscent of the philosophical fantasies of the Victorian writer George MacDonald. But too often Gaarder's musings seem repetitious, the imagery hazy, the conclusions unsurprising. Fascinating and frustrating in equal measure.