Maelstrom by Tom Stone

Reviewed by Jamy Ian Swiss (originally published in Genii January, 2012)


Tom Stone continues to evidence himself as a distinctly creative voice in contemporary magic. With Maelstrom seeing publication virtually hot on the heals of his previous volume, Vortex (reviewed in Genii, August 2010), universally acclaimed by reviewers and readers alike, Mr. Stone continues to press forward against the tide of tradition, while consistently demonstrating deep knowledge and understanding of conjuring's timeless principles and historical evolutions. Profoundly influenced by Tommy Wonder, Mc Stone takes inspiration from that men-tor's path by constantly drawing on the tripartite wellspring of Mr. Wonder's "Three Pillars" of methodology: psychology, sleight of hand, and mechanics.

The author's first words in Maelstrom are a provocative declaration: "You don't need this book!" Continuing this thoughtful introduction, he states that "I've included a fair number of unfinished pieces and pipedreams in this book," and goes on to explain that while editors and reviewers (I) often despise reading such material in magic books, he quickly clarifies the point that what he (and I, for that matter) find objectionable are pipedreams that are "presented as finished pieces" as opposed to as fodder for inspiration.

I would even take this a step further and add that taking an unfinished idea and offering it for inspiration may not be quite sufficient either, lest we find ourselves suddenly deluged with bad ideas in the name of creativity. Rather, even unfinished ideas need to be grounded in an expert and informed sensibility one that grasps the fact that some ideas are simply bad (and the reasons why it is true).

Mr. Stone articulately addresses these issues in his introduction, and also considers the nature of creativity. He writes, "Since the publication of Vortex, some people have put the label 'genius' in proximity to my name. To be accused of this is a horrible thing. Unintentionally or not, it's a demeaning label, since it diminishes the amount of hard work I've done, and projects a false image that I possess some unique ability that provides me with good ideas without any real effort." Indeed, those who like to think that great art and great craft are the result of an accident of birth may in fact simply betray a desire to excuse their own lack of effort.

While I believe that creativity can be learned a potential all humans possess and a skill that is readily refined and improved with practice I have always been suspicious of the notion that it can be readily taught. This apparent conundrum is satisfyingly resolved in the pages of Maelstrom, in which the author does not set out so much to try to teach creativity, as rather to offer an example many, in fact of what creativity looks like. Books that offer mechanical solutions and process-oriented guidelines seem to me to be, well, misguided.

Mr. Stone concludes his introduction by explaining that he wrote this book because "I desired to read a book in which a creator discussed how he came up with his pieces; what were their backgrounds and reasons for being created. I wished to read something more than just a presentation of finished pieces." In June, 1994 I devoted my first book review column for Genii entirely to an examination of the then newly released Paul Gertner's Steel and Silver by Richard Kaufman. And in the midst of my exuberant praise for that work, I pointed out that its one flaw albeit through no fault of the material's creator was that sig-nature routines like Mr. Gertner's "Steel Cups and Balls," that possessed the burnished experience of tens of thousands of performances, were in fact problematic for students, because there was nothing left to be done to them. Thus the only way to make them your own was to deconstruct them back to their roots and start again. This is the problem with studying finished pieces, and while it is difficult and truly rare to present a substantive and useful alternative, Tom Stone has accomplished that very thing with Maelstrom.

Having focused thus far on the important ideas driving Mr. Stone's book, it seems almost superfluous to catalog the specific contents. There are some 84 items listed in the table of contents, an extraordinary quantity in fact, and these vary in length from descriptions of a sentence or two, to in-depth dissertations on the Multiplying Billiard Balls and Bro. John Hamman's "Signed Card," the latter two discussions comprising 25 pages and 40 pages, respectively. The billiard ball discussion is bursting with unusual ideas in handling and presentation, and the "Signed Card" variants include a remarkable diversity of methodological approaches, including sleights and gaffs that might well lead thoughtful students to many other applications. On the other end of the spectrum, "Complicated Exchange" is a lovely card transposition relying upon the Andrus Color Change, described in a mere five sentences. (I intend to try this as a follow-up to the Walton/Freeman "Time Trick." You're welcome.)

The range of Mr. Stone's interests cannot be exaggerated, with material including close-up card and coin magic, platform mental magic, and even the occasional illusion idea; in the latter category, I enjoyed considering his notion about the world's slowest "Metamorphosis" trunk exchange. In a brief consideration of the story magic-genre about which the author observes that the form often presents "both bad storytelling and bad magic"—Mr. Stone suggests a nice idea for turning Bob Neale's "Sole Survivor" into something other than a card trick.

There are ideas, many provided in the context of complete routines, for the "Multiplying Bottles," the Dancing Cane, Ramsay's "Cylinder and Coins," Jennings’ “Invisible Palm Aces," thimble manipulation, the Sucker Silk to Egg (featuring a You Do As I Do presentation inspired by a Steve Dacri approach, but in which both the magician and the spectator manage to transform their fake eggs into real ones!), and more. "Sentient Sand" is an offbeat effect in which the performer divines an image the spectator draws using a stick as stylus in a dish of sand. And the book closes on a fully developed comedy mental magic routine based on a game show theme, a feature of the author's repertoire that could well become a feature in your own show.

Mr. Stone provides his own copious and elegant illustrations, and the layout and design, matching that of his previous book, Vortex, is a stellar reflection of his work, in the quality and style we have long come to expect from publisher Hermetic Press. If you don't much care for thinking too hard about magic, then as the author suggests, you don't need this book. But if you enjoy, and indeed occasionally thrill, at the sometime excruciating pleasures of creativity, you will love this book.

Maelstrom • Torn Stone • 10" x 7" hardbound, three-piece case, full-color dustjacket • 277 pages • 530 illustrations • 2011 • Hermetic Press

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