To mark the publication of Raven’s Wand’s second edition, plus the exciting features of augmented reality it now boasts, I’ve begun this chapter-by-chapter review of the book. Like the director’s commentary on a DVD I’m going to take you through the book one chapter at a time, week-by-week, revealing things nobody knows but me. We start, of course, with The Prologue ‘Delicate Threads’ and Chapter One, ‘Seventeen Shillings’.
Prologue ‘Delicate Threads’
The reason The Timekeeper is a spider in an hourglass is due to the black widow spider’s infamous hourglass marking on its abdomen. I just took the visual prompt and inverted it, putting the spider in the glass rather than the glass on the spider – simple! A lot of my writing begins with pure imagery, perhaps because I was an illustrator before I became a writer. The Prologue sets the time period (‘a great revolution of coal and steel’) and confirms a sense of mystery. I’ve always been interested in the concept of freewill or fate; is it one or the other, or a blend of both, and if so who decides fate? The Timekeeper offered me the chance to explore these questions through a physical character, and I selected a spider because the concept of ‘webs of fate’ is a very ancient one.
Chapter One – Seventeen Shillings.
I wrote Raven’s Wand in 2008 and it was published eight years later. That gave me plenty of time to refine it (the original book was over 30% longer!) and this opening chapter wasn’t added until 2012. I felt the book needed a more explosive opening (it originally began with what is chapter two, and Valonia in her tree house) and so I wrote an account of the battle of Solvgarad, turning it from just a name that was uttered occasionally through the book into a significant moment that still haunts survivors of twenty years later. Since 2008 my writing style had become more streamlined (I’d written both ‘Flowers of Fate’ and ‘Lion of Evermore’ by now) and I liked the new opening chapter to Raven’s Wand so much that I edited the entire book to reflect this new pace and style. It’s still one of my favourite chapters, and note how poor Davey Warner fares on his 18th birthday and compare that to Kolfinnia’s 18th – perhaps eighteen is an unlucky number after all. . .
Next week – Chapter Two: A Witch’s Duty
This is one of those images that came out totally different to my original idea, which was to draw a non-commercial, scary picture just for the hell of it featuring a cute fairy trapped in a spider’s web and about to be eaten: sometimes I’m just ‘bad’. But you might be wondering what changed; after all it’s a picture of a cute fairy trapped in a spider’s web and about to be eaten, is it not? Well, strictly speaking, no it isn’t. The original image I had in mind was of a child-fairy screeching in terror as the huge and very hairy spider plunges it fangs into her helpless little body (I never said I was a nice guy) but although that would have made a satisfying shock-joke image it would have lacked drama: the fairy gets eaten – end of story. Being someone who loves to draw and write too, it seemed a shame not to draw a picture with a narrative rather than a foregone conclusion, and so the image changed. . . I made the fairy older, to give her more of a fighting chance, and rather than draw the spider already tucking in, I pushed it further into the background, and then to add more impact and suspense I veiled it in a sheet of web, leaving just a pair of probing legs to tantalize (and perhaps revolt) the viewer. Lastly I offered my fairy a slim chance of survival in the shape of her fallen wand illuminated by a shaft of light, and combined with the title ‘Katrina’s Wand’, the question is will she or won’t she reach it in time? I leave that to you, but for fairy fans out there who see Katrina flitting away to fight another day, remember that spiders need to eat too. . . perhaps I ought to draw the reverse picture; of mum spider sobbing in her kitchen surrounded by starving spiderlings. Those blasted fairies!
Here’s an illustration from a story called ‘Troll Busters’ about the three billy goats gruff setting up their own troll-control agency, except this book doesn’t exist. The same goes for stories such as ‘It’s Raining Chocolate’, ‘The Haunted Classroom’ and my own particular favourite, ‘Dinosaurs in Doughnut Land’. They sound (I hope) like exciting children’s stories, although they exist only as titles. For many years I’ve worked in primary schools running illustration workshops and these fake book titles along with others have been a staple of my presentations, except here’s another twist – I don’t drawn them, the children do. I give the class a choice of three titles and encourage the children to pick one and draw whatever image it conjures for them. What happens every time, and delights me no end, is seeing the children not only draw their picture but begin to tell a story to go with it, even if it’s just a verbal explanation of what’s happening. Suddenly, and without really trying, each child has a narrative to go with the title, no matter how scant, or as is often the case, crazy!
I recall walking around a class of year 4s once, seeing how they were getting on (without lingering and looking over shoulders) and one girl was busy illustrating a title called ‘Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Hedgehog’, and I gazed at her work and saw a Godzilla-sized hedgehog chasing after three helpless rabbits fleeing on a skateboard. Curious, I asked why she’d elected to draw rabbits in a picture with ‘pigs’ in the title, of course being careful not to say if it was wrong or right, and she answered; I can’t draw pigs, but I can draw rabbits, and the rabbits are in a gang called ‘The Pigs’. I told her that was one of the most creative solutions I’d ever heard and left her to it, and I still cite this example of lateral thinking in schools to this day.
The ‘Troll Busters’ illustration above is one that I drew just to show in schools as a primer to get the children excited about the drawing task I’ve just described, so you could call it a demonstration piece. Each title is like a door into an unknown room, and sometimes that room is just a broom cupboard and other times it’s palatial, and on rare occasions it isn’t a room at all but another world. One title I used to employ was ‘The Witch That Couldn’t Fly’. I decided to draw a demonstration piece to go with it, like Troll Busters above, but something unique happened. In drawing a few practise witches I became fascinated with their story, and they quickly got their hooks into me. This is how a fake title for a children’s book evolved into the complex and rich Dark Raven Chronicles, the fantasy series I continue to expand and have spent over ten years writing. Sometimes I’m left wondering if the words inspire the pictures, or is it the other way around. I like to let the children decide.
I knew the heart of Flowers of Fate was going to be a supercharged take on Goldilocks; about a golden-haired witch and three rampaging berserks, but in order for Sunday to find those cursed warriors I had to get her to the land of such heroes (or villains as the case may be). The last we see of her is in Britain, and so somehow I had to get her ‘up north’ into Viking lands. How I did this I’ll let the story tell, but I selected one northern land I knew well enough, and this is where Sunday begins Flowers of Fate. The beach of black volcanic sand is real and can be found at Vik, along Iceland’s southern coast. Having walked it a few times I felt I could conjure it effectively enough for the reader. I almost always base fictional locations on real places – with a few twists of course. I find the key to convincing and enjoyable writing is to observe. I keep a note book and record anything that catches my attention. Looking through it recently I found this note, written after a bout of snowy weather: ‘The snow’s all but gone, except for behind the dry-stone walls, where it looks like lines of white dust-sheets rolled away after a decorating job’. One day it might find a place in my books, or maybe not, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is taking the time to notice these things, and in doing so you’ll be sharpening your imagination.
This is my most recent piece of artwork, finished only this morning and entitled ‘Shield Maiden’. It’s the summer solstice and many have gathered for the special day, but typically it’s raining! At last the clouds part and the sun breaks through, and Meredith (the girl in the picture) finally gets her chance to take part in the solstice celebrations. I love contrasts in pictures, hence Meredith’s protector is a fierce (or not so fierce) wolf. All of my work is coloured pencil and it was a challenge to draw rain, wet grass and a rainbow with such a potentially heavy medium. I dug out an old photo of mine of such a rainbow and stormy sky I’d taken years ago, and drew just what I saw. Picture’s often benefit when ‘less says more’, and I first drew the sun just showing through the clouds above Meredith’s head, and then reconsidered and removed it because her expression and eye-line do the job for us, as does the glint on the shield’s rim. Often, it’s what we don’t see that has most impact upon us.
Spring 2018 sees Raven’s Wand published as a deck of oracle cards, lavishly illustrated with characters from the book and with exclusively written meanings. Today – a closer look at ‘Relics’
If you could have sailed around Britain’s coast two centuries ago, there’s a chance you’d have seen large, flightless, black & white seabirds known as Great Auks. They effectively lived an identical lifestyle to penguins, but by 1844 (according to records) the last one was clubbed to death and eaten. This crime was committed in Iceland – but wait, there is a challenge for the killing of the last Great Auk from the nearby Faroe Islands. Think about it – what kind of accolade is genocide? What person or nation would argue that credit for a certain genocide belongs to them? And here I’m not singling out Iceland or The Faroes, all nations have exterminated one spices or another, and often, many species. The true madness of this is its banality: a species was exterminated – so what – it happens – next. The same sort of thing happened to Britain’s wolves, with the last one being killed in the 17th century according to most sources. ‘Relics’ was drawn with these facts in mind. Look closely and you’ll see not just flesh and blood wolves, but wolves hidden amongst the rocks and trees. Witches hid them there to save the last of them, and to me this is what witchcraft is truly about – respect for living things. I say ‘to me’ because there are many interpretations of what witchcraft is, but one thing’s for sure – it wasn’t a witch that battered that lone Great Auk to death in 1844, but hey – so what – it happens – next.
When I illustrated the story of Peter Pan a few years ago, I spent the best part of 10 months working solidly on Peter’s world: Neverland. Day after day I’d get out of bed and face hours of intensive work at the drawing board bringing J M Barrie’s famous story alive.
I must be one of the very few people who’s never seen the Disney version of Pan, and my first real introduction to the story was reading it in readiness for illustrating it. Immediately it struck me that Peter wasn’t the youthful hero I’d always imagined, but rather a spoiled and distinctly selfish brat. As the weeks and months dragged by and the portfolio of images grew, I came to dislike Peter more and more, and instead find a growing sympathy with his nemesis – Captain Hook. Hook is the far more interesting and complex character. Peter is often obnoxious because he ‘feels like it’, while with Hook we glimpse a reason for his fall from grace. And before anyone berates me for my harsh comments about Peter, remember – amongst other things – he tries to shut the window and prevent Wendy and Co returning home so he can keep her forever, and it’s only the look of despair on the sleeping Mrs Darling’s face that softens his heart. Hook’s bitterness stems from his resentment of Peter’s bravery (or recklessness to be more accurate – he faces off against a pride of lions just to impress his new friends) and more importantly, his ‘cockiness’. That’s when Hook and I became partners – I can’t stand our new age of arrogance that’s replaced modesty, and where those who shout loudest simply must be the best because, well. . . they’re the loudest. When Hook attempts to poison Peter’s drink, he relents and the better part of him thinks twice, but it’s the ‘cocky’ smile on the sleeping Peter’s lips that inflames him again, and so in goes the poison! Sadly – Tinkerbell came along and ruined it all by drinking the poison draught to save Peter’s life. (And remember how Tinkerbell encouraged the Lost Boys to shoot Wendy down with an arrow – to kill her and ensure she didn’t have a rival for Peter’s attention? Twisted, eh?)
When it came to drawing Hook falling into the crocodile’s waiting mouth I felt the story had lost its most intriguing character, and to some extent its heart. If my nemesis had been a selfish and arrogant little boy who infuriatingly always got the better of me, I’d have become a twisted villain like Hook too. And so – Captain James Hook, scourge of the cocky everywhere – I salute you!
One of the great joys of writing is the freedom to reinvent traditional themes. In Raven’s Wand we meet witches for the first time, and instead of the ugly crones of propaganda we find that witchcraft is a peaceful faith, and its followers include men, women and children alike. Also, out go flying broomsticks and in come lightning-staffs and thunder-sprites. For me, reinvention is a cornerstone of fantasy art and writing. Why should every dragon look the same? Fairies get the same treatment. Out go fairies as mischievous magical folk, and in come animalistic nature spirits who escort the dead to Evermore.
Fairies take a lead role in the final novel of the series, Lion of Evermore (published this autumn). This test-sketch shows a scene from the book’s climactic battle – when entire fairy nations have to fight for survival against a vast plague of their infected kin. Morgus is not just a magma-fairy, but the leader of his nation, and he battles valiantly against a horde of infected iron-fairies.
He’s certainly more than just a big fairy, but is even Morgus strong enough to stop the iron infection . . ?
Spring 2018 sees Raven’s Wand published as a deck of oracle cards, lavishly illustrated with characters from the book and with exclusively written meanings. Week by week, I’ll post my thoughts and comments on the forthcoming cards. This week – ‘Destroying Angel’
Destroying Angel is the first novel in the successor series to Raven’s Wand, and tells the story of Freya Albright’s boat-full of witches that fled Wildwood-coven, but subsequently vanished . . .
I wanted Freya’s story to remain part of the Raven’s Wand world and its Victorian setting, but still to have its own unique feel. Freya and her crew of nine are a tight-knit bunch, and their camaraderie is as often touching as it is earthy and amusing – and it needs to be considering what they face. Paying homage to a favourite of mine, Beowulf, the first story sees a remote northern outpost under siege from a powerful and destructive entity. This creature came not from a dark cave or the depths of an icy lake however, but from the blackness between the stars – in fact it is the blackness between the stars. A tale of isolation, suspense and deception unfolds, as the tiny mining town of Lokk bars the gates, and looks to a rabble of unknown soldiers to protect them from they believe is the Devil himself, but they find other allies too. It’s here that Freya and her crew prove their worth when they’re forced to fight alongside Illuminata mercenaries in an attempt to defeat an entity as old as the universe and as desolate as the vacuum of space.
I had a lot of fun with Destroying Angel, despite its dark tone and (gosh!) a sex scene or two (I told you it was different to Raven’s Wand!) and whereas characters take their turn in the spotlight in Raven’s Wand and its sequels, the focus remains on Freya and her crew throughout this new series. In doing so, I’ve been surprised by just how protective I’ve become of Freya & Co, as if they’re family. When they laugh I laugh with them, and when they’re in danger I’m anxious for them, but they do have a mysterious (and often stern) guide and protector . . . he’s dead, but that doesn’t cramp his style, and while he’s not known for his sense of humour, it’s thanks to him that a certain ‘Clovis’ found a certain door marked ‘Rowan’, and if he hadn’t, well, Raven’s Wand might have had a totally different ending. You’ll have to wait and see . . .