Destroying Angel

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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 . . .

The story of a drawing

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2018 sees the release of The Raven’s Wand Oracle Deck, featuring 44 pieces of my Wildwood art. I thought I’d give readers a look at what goes on behind the scenes during the creation of these works . . .

‘Can you draw me a man, but like a tiger?’ I can’t recall the exact wording but that’s how this character, Tiber, came to be. The brief was just that – brief – which suits me fine. And so I set out to draw a ‘tiger man’. At the time I was in the middle of a major commission elsewhere and had to break off for a week to complete this, which really put the pressure on. I kept looking at the clock, knowing I couldn’t afford to run over. I opted for a Siberian tiger, because I knew I wanted snow in the background, and I had great fun inventing Tiber’s little caravan. Despite all of this enjoyment, the pressure racked up. I remember it was January, and storm after storm rolled in, and the electric was on and off, and without light (and my trusty stereo) I can’t work. At one point the electric was off for 36 hours, and still the clock was ticking. I’d also just moved house, and the new place was grim and unwelcoming, and I was itching to get on with some DIY and make the place ‘mine’. So in the end, with all the odds against me, it’s something of a miracle that the image manages to capture the sense of stillness I was lacking when I drew it!

Happily Evil

 

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Something the Dalai Lama said long ago stays with me – that every human soul, regardless of nationality, culture or gender, seeks to live a life of happiness, free of suffering. And he’s right. What people define as ‘happiness’ is wildly variable, however. Some find their ‘happiness’ only through material riches or domination of others. When this is the case it’s easy to see that what they’re seeking isn’t really happiness at all, but the alleviation of their own fears, jealousies or insecurities – which in turn makes them feel better – which in turn conveys a twisted sense of ‘contentment’. See how easy it is to cause mayhem in the name of happiness? This doesn’t undermine the Dalai Lama’s wisdom but it does give a startling insight into human behaviour.

When I write my characters I ask myself, ‘what’s this character after – how do they find their contentment, and what lengths are they prepared to go to?’ With characters of high morality it’s easy. Kolfinnia’s happiness is knowing Wildwood-coven will always be her home. Valonia’s happiness is seeing her witches thrive. Moral characters have the shortest and most direct routes to happiness. Then there are ‘grey’ characters such as Hathwell, whose ‘happiness’ is the challenge to find his courage and make amends for serving an organization he doesn’t fully believe in, but having aided their crimes.

Beyond ‘grey’ characters we have the true villains, usually surrounded by a host of ‘greys’ who excuse their actions as merely ‘following orders’. True villains require perhaps the most sensitive writing of all. Their route to happiness is often very convoluted and troubled, although this won’t show on the surface.

Of the three chief villains of The Dark Raven Chronicles – Samuel Krast, Victor Thorpe, and Sef – each of them is plainly destructive and immoral, but look closely and you’ll see the real tragedy; there is redemption waiting below the surface. These villains might be immoral, but not amoral. They know that their actions destroy the sacred quest for happiness in others – and very rarely the reader will see them struggle with this. It might be just one sentence amongst hundreds of pages, such as Victor Thorpe’s brief twinge of conscience in Flowers of Fate, but it is there . . . and for those readers who’ve enjoyed Victor’s company and wonder where this devil’s moral moment went to, look carefully at his initial reaction to the terrible choice laid before him by his bullying grandfather, Barlow . . .

When the pitch-black of a villainy is garnished with a speck of white or grey, it provides the reader a toehold – something that they can identify with in an otherwise alien and opposing mindset. If done right, we might end up actually developing some empathy with our villain (I only say some empathy, not a whole lorry-load!).

Lion of Evermore will be published later this year, in the autumn. Sef takes the role of chief villain, and although the pages and strewn with his depravities, always remember that all he is seeking is a state of ‘happiness’ – just as we all are.

Night & Day

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As I write, the summer solstice isn’t far off (well, for those of us in the northern hemisphere) and although all the celebration around this festival points to light and energy, I personally can’t help but start to think of the darker nights. ‘Tomorrow, the daylight will be a fraction shorter,’ I tell myself. It isn’t as gloomy as it sounds, because on December 21st I always begin to think the opposite; ‘tomorrow there’s a fraction more light!’ I think this even when it’s still dark at 4pm and the weather is locked into days and days of endless rain (I say rain because it seems to snow very little here in the UK anymore).

In honour of the solstice I drew this illustration entitled ‘Night and Day’. The young woman in the picture is of course a witch, but her striking look is only intended for the big day itself, and she won’t get up every morning of the year and spend hours applying her ceremonial face paint. I like to think of the witches I write about as being practical, humble and very down to earth. Drawing faces is challenging but always rewarding – when they come out right – and on occasion I’m lucky enough to work one-to-one with art students. Recently I was working with one GCSE student, strengthening her figure drawing skills, and we moved onto faces and portraits. Rather than draw with a pencil, I broke out the oil paints and chunky brushes and we had fun painting all the blocks of colour that comprise a human face. My own approach has become totally instinctive over the years, and I don’t stop to think consciously about how I go about drawing or painting a face, but with someone sat beside you and watching your every move, you suddenly have to justify every dab of the brush or squeeze of the tube.

I think I surprised my fellow painter when I started adding greens and blues to the flesh tones, and talked of ‘warming colours up and cooling them down’. In fact, hearing it aloud I even surprised myself. There are no such things as ‘black people’ or ‘white people’, and nobody’s skin tone remains the same throughout the day. The way the light plays across a face, or the way surrounding objects influence colour all change what the viewer sees. As we get older our faces change (usually not for the better!) and we accept this without question, but we stubbornly stick to the idea that our skin can only be one colour. As an artist I find this merely amusing, but from a social-political viewpoint it becomes very divisive.

So, when the summer solstice rolls around in a week’s time, remember those miserable sods like myself, who start to brood over the dark nights ahead, and remember it’s not all light and happiness, just as the wider world isn’t black and white – even though things would be simpler if it were. On June 22nd, our witch will scrub away her striking face paint and go back to having skin that is wonderfully but subtly multicoloured, but only if you learn to see it right. . .

Sprite Sense II

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Sprite Sense – Part II

A warm welcome to all of those just discovering Raven’s Wand! Readers frequently tell me how much they adore thunder-sprites, and so I thought I’d post a series of short articles about these wild but popular creatures. Tonight we look at Lifespan, Distribution and Flight. More to follow – enjoy!

A closer look at the world of thunder-sprites . . . LIFESPAN

Witches and thunder-sprites have partnered up for untold thousands of years. They remain a pair from the day the witch finds a thunder-sprite and proves their worth, until either the witch dies or their lightning-staff is broken. Breaking a staff is never deliberate, as no witch would wish to be parted from their sprite, this only happens by accident or in battle. Sprites then return to the thunder-heights and their Lord, Silver-fist, where they become part of the endless cycle of rain and storm once again. They might be born again as another bolt in another place, but with a new name and likely no memory of their former life or witch. Although covens are found in all corners of the world, sometimes lightning strikes in very remote places, and the sprite will go his whole life and never see a human, let alone a witch. In these instances, he will live happily inside his tree until the day it dies, which could be many centuries, or just days if the lightning-bolt was too severe, but the line between a living tree and a dead tree is surprisingly fuzzy . . . When the tree is nothing but rotten mulch, it can be clearly argued as being ‘dead’, but some trees are cut for timber to make furniture and houses, and they can last for many centuries after the tree was felled – as can any sprite still living inside them. Skald and his fellows speak fondly of one such sprite, named Torn. No witch came to claim him, and eventually his tree was felled to make a large four-poster bed for a grand hall. Sleepers in that bed often woke in the middle of the night screaming in terror, claiming an ‘imp’ had been scuttling through the canopy. Torn might not have found a witch, but he kept his sense of humour!

A closer look at the world of thunder-sprites . . . DISTRIBUTION

When Clovis crossed the star-sea to come to Kolfinnia’s aid, he (not surprisingly) had a lightning-staff and thunder-sprite of his own, named Torrent. Torrent lived by the same laws, and even spoke the same language as thunder-sprites here on Earth, even though he was from light-years away. He even looked identical, although his feathers were more emerald than sapphire. Here on Earth, animals quickly evolve into subspecies if separated by only a short distance, so how can creatures from light-years apart be so similar? The answer is that thunder-sprites are born from natural laws that are universal – the power of storms and lightning. There’s lightning on Jupiter just as there is on Earth and it obeys the same laws of physics. Torrent might be from a long way away, but in every sense he is a brother to Skald and every sprite on Earth. The only difference is that on Torrent’s world (which for the record is Vega), the thunder-heights are commanded, not by Silver-fist, but by a different Lord. In thunder-sprite legends, these Lords were always journeying to other worlds to meet strange creatures and even visit their sleeping dragons, just like Hethra and Halla.

A closer look at the world of thunder-sprites . . . FLIGHT

The reason witches and sprites originally formed working partnerships is one of those stories that’s so old nobody can get to the truth of it, although it seems every coven has its own legend explaining the origin of the witch/sprite union. One theme that remains common in every legend however, is the sprite’s love of flight. According to thunder-sprites, there’s nothing like the initial rush of streaking down from a thunderhead at supersonic speed, burning hotter than the sun’s surface, and then crashing into the earth below. It is the ultimate thrill ride. Sadly, for such action-loving creatures, if they strike a tree they’re committed to living in that tree until the day it dies (unless of course the bolt kills it), and that could be many, many years. Working with witches allows the sprite a chance to escape the confines of their tree and fly frequently, and gives a witch an invaluable ally and a magical tool in the form of a lightning-staff. Thankfully for sprites, the witches that come looking for them are at that pre-adolescent age where they feel ready for anything, and are only too happy to fly hard and fast. Some things never change . . .

Pencils

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Coloured Pencils – handy things to know . . .

All of my Wildwood art is drawn in colour pencil, and for those with an interest in this particular medium here’s an article about getting the best from your pencils.

First I gather the reference photos I’ll need, ones I’ve taken myself or sourced from elsewhere. Then I visualise how I’ll piece them together. I always use Daler Rowney pastel paper. It has a rough side and a smooth side and I always use smooth. Most of the time I’ll use Platinum: a neutral mid-grey shade. It might sound odd drawing on grey paper but I find that drawing with colour pencil on white paper spoils the effect, as the pigment leaves all the tiny dips and depressions in the paper uncovered and you end up with a kind of ‘white noise’ behind the image that breaks up its solidity. But that’s just me – a lot of CP artists like white paper.

Graphite can dirty the colours you lay on top, but to start with I sketch up my image with a 2B pencil, and this can take up to a day as I try out different compositions. Once I’m happy I have a choice – if the colour scheme I’m aiming for is dark then I can draw on top of the graphite (with care) but if it’s bright and breezy then first I’ll ‘dab’ off the graphite drawing with a pencil rubber so that it leaves the faintest of lines. I could of course draw faintly to start with, but that’d mean using a HB or 2H and that can leave ugly scratch marks on the paper. Sometimes I draw out my composition not in graphite but with a colour pencil, that way it’s guaranteed to be absorbed by the overlaying colours. The advantage of this is that there’s no risk of graphite smudging areas of delicate detail, such as a creamy complexion on a child’s face for instance. The down side of sketching with a colour pencil first is that they don’t like being rubbed out! You’re dealing with pigment that’s got oil or wax in, and the rubber can’t always get rid of the lines as it can with graphite – so be warned. If I draw in CP first then invariably I’ll use ‘nougat’ which is a nice subtle brown shade in the Polychromos range.

So now the under-drawing’s ready and the colour work can start. I draw a lot of human characters and they can be tricky, so I always start with the face which is the hardest part. If it goes bad then I scrap the picture and haven’t lost too much time. I use a range of colours, finding they all have their strengths and weaknesses . . .

Polychromos by Faber Castelle keep their point well and have good opacity, great for fine detail.

Prismacolor (American) mix and blend better than any other brand I’ve come across. They are softer, and so not as good for crisp fine detail. Not easy to source in the UK.

Derwent Drawing pencils come in a range of 24 earth/natural colours. They are great for nature studies and their cores are quite wide so good for laying down large areas of expressive colour.

Derwent Coloursoft have a wide core and are like Prismacolor in many ways, but I find them a little ‘chalky’ and so I only have a small range, although some of them I wouldn’t do without – cloud blue and brown-black spring to mind.

Lastly on the subject of pencils, don’t forget to include a good range of grey shades. I’ll often add a hint of grey to skin tones, sandwiched in between other pigments. Relying on colours alone can give an artificial ‘Disney’ look to a scene. So don’t forget the greys. I rely on my range of French Greys a lot.

Accessories: I have a small battery powered rubber that’s very handy if you’ve got to alter a small detail in a crucial place. It’s also great drawing tool in its own right, removing colour rather than laying it down.

Pencil extenders – better than throwing 30% of your pencils in the bin! Don’t know why more people don’t use them . . .

Scalpel – always use one for sharpening pencils and for scratching the finest lines in pigment to draw hair or spider silks etc.

Fixative: I use fix not to protect the drawing, but to get rid of wax-bloom. Once your drawing’s finished you might find it looking ‘dusty’ after a few days and wonder what’s going on. It’s wax-bloom. The oils in the pencils are now seeping to the surface. It’s easy to remove, you can either just fix it to seal it and restore the drawing, or wipe it gently with a soft tissue, and then either fix it or leave it – but the wax might come back. As I tend to work heavy there’s a lot of pigment on my drawings and the bloom can be a problem, so I let them ‘rest’ a few weeks then dust them down and spray them, but never spray too much at any one time as it’ll permanently discolour the drawing!

And lastly – tea, plenty of tea . . .

Sprite Sense

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Sprite Sense

A warm welcome to all of those just discovering Raven’s Wand! Readers frequently tell me how much they adore thunder-sprites, and so I thought I’d post a series of short articles about these wild but popular creatures. Tonight we look at Silver-fist, Names, and Birth-signs. More to follow – enjoy!

A closer look at the world of thunder-sprites . . . SILVER-FIST

Thunder-sprites, like the elemental forces that give birth to them, are virtually immortal; being born as a lightning-bolt and then returning to the skies when their time here is over, to be reborn as another bolt in another place and time. Silver-fist is their Lord, and he was born from the very first lightning that struck the Earth (or The Blue Orb as sprites and witches know it) epochs ago when the world was a seething, primordial mass. Thunder-sprites have the utmost respect for their Lord, who is both brave and just. As The Dark Raven Chronicles continues to expand, Silver-fist makes appearances in many of the legends thunder-sprites tell of their home in the skies, and you’ll also see how his wisdom is crucial to helping witches here on Earth, along with his greatest general, who lives in a coven alongside a witch but keeps his identity a secret.

A closer look at the world of thunder-sprites . . . NAMES

Sprites, as most readers will know by now, take their names from whatever devastation was wrought by the storm that birthed them, and not always the individual bolt that carried the sprite to earth. Annie Barden, one of Wildwood’s young witches, has a sprite called ‘June’, much to the amusement of his fellow sprites. His full name is ‘Snows-in-June’, named after a huge summer storm dumped three inches of hail on the high fells, resembling snow. Annie elected to name him ‘June’, although ‘Snowy’ might have been a better choice! Sand-Fired-To-Glass (or just Glass) is another good example, named for a lightning strike that left a beach with a dendrite of melted sand, turned to glass by the incredible heat. Sprites love the complex names used to honour their storms, as well as their shortened version (apart from June perhaps), but they also have special storm names that only other sprites know, and they never reveal them to humans, not even their witches. Every sprite’s name tells a story, and one notable one is Jump-the-Cross, named for a lightning-bolt that hit a church spire, rebounded and struck a tree in the churchyard below.

A closer look at the world of thunder-sprites . . . BIRTH-SIGNS

Most of us know our zodiac sign even if we’re skeptical about the future being written in the stars. Thunder-sprites have their own birth-signs, but based on trees and seasons. First comes the tree, then comes the time of year, but sprites have different names for the seasons than we do; winter is ‘sleep’, spring is ‘rise’, summer is ‘charge’ and autumn is ‘weep’. Skald was born in an ash tree in the spring time, and so his birth-sign is ‘rising-ash’. But there’s an added twist – sprites add the moon phase to their birth-sign, and again these are known differently. Waxing is ‘singing’, wanning is ‘falling’, while a full moon is known as a ‘glory’ and a new moon is called a ‘lost’. Hence, Skald’s full birth-sign is ‘rising-ash of the singing-moon’. Gale, Kolfinnia’s sprite, has a birth-sign of ‘weeping-ash of the falling-moon.’ A sprite born in summer, in an oak tree and on a full moon would be born under the sign; ‘charging-oak of the glory-moon’. Simple! I’ll leave you to work out the birth particulars of a sprite with the sign; ‘sleeping-yew of the lost-moon’ . . . good luck!

Sundays aren’t boring

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Unusually, this blog is written not by me, but someone else . . . many thanks to Jo Simpson for her review of ‘Flowers of Fate’ the second novel in the Dark Raven Chronicles series. I’ll let her speak from now on . . .

 

 

Powerful, compelling, adrenaline fuelled story. ‘Flowers of Fate’ is the second volume in the series of the Dark Raven Chronicles and is another book of excellence! Sunday’s fate has been re-weaved, redemption commences and a sea of emotions is imminent for her and her friends (and us as readers…ahem) as she embarks on a gruelling mission.

Sunday encounters many terrible places, nasty characters and awful atrocities on her journey. However, in between these intense moments there is humour and she develops special friendships which adds warmth and positive encouragement. Even through the sorrow, you will not be able to stop reading it, because it is so well written with hidden meanings and messages which make you think more deeply. You will feel like your soul has been hypnotised by the book itself and be entranced (like a Berserk!), willing good triumphs to conquer evil and making spells of your own.

As with the first book (Raven’s Wand) I was fascinated with each of the character’s personalities. The behaviours, powers or secrets they each had created even more intrigue and suspense. I am still searching for my own thunder-sprite too but they are in hiding… understandably. There is a clever use of symbolism in the story and the authors excellent descriptions create stunning pictures in the readers own mind, even before seeing the wonderful illustrations that go along side the books. Sunday’s character is determined and brave with a strong desire to overcome battles including one within her own mind and the destructive minds of others…. An awe inspiring witch on a quest for peace and for justice to prevail. A magnificent book of Mysticism, Magic and Mystery!

Book II of The Dark Raven Chronicles out soon . . .

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I’m very excited about the forthcoming publication of Flowers of Fate, book II of The Dark Raven Chronicles. With all the groundwork done in book I, Flowers begins at a fast pace and rarely lets up. The cast is streamlined, and the central hero is a lone witch rather than a coven-full, but I won’t say who, although the title gives it away. It’s her relationship with her thunder-sprite and journey of redemption that forms the heart of the story, contrasting starkly with the story’s virtually heartless villains. There was also time to introduce and explore deeper esoteric ideas, namely the nature of Ruination, which is often misunderstood, even by witches. Flowers also plays with the theme of freewill versus fate; can there be one without the other, or is choice an illusion? Thankfully these concepts are answered not by weighty philosophical ramblings, but with vivid characters, some human . . . some most certainly not. Flowers takes our witch right into the heart of Victorian London, where she meets monsters in human form and humans in monstrous form. There are fights between formidable creatures that are immune to weapons, assassins working on behalf of gods, spiders with a mastery of threads, secrets cults within secret cults, metal giants possessed by entities best not spoken of, demons that fall in love – or at least their twisted version of it, murders that The Ripper himself would covet, bank robberies by a Robin Hood-style hero, and of course battles between magic and steel, but woven on an epic scale.

It is my privilege to offer Flowers of Fate to readers very soon, and my thanks go to Books Illustrated for their tireless work and endless faith. Curling up by the fire with a copy of the book would be a fitting way to end the year . . .

Sunday Flowers

Sunday Flowers

New artwork on the go – Sunday Flowers. Those who’ve read Raven’s Wand will know that Sunday is one of the main characters. We meet her at different points in her story-arc and see different aspects of her along the way, and although I can’t expand too much on what those aspects are without spoiling the plot, it’s fair to say that during Raven’s Wand we never really see Sunday as she ought to be – the solstice queen of Regal-Fox coven.

She boasts of being ‘a witch of high rank’, but what her duties as solstice queen might be we never find out fully. This wasn’t an oversight on my part, it’s just that Sunday’s background needed just a basic outline, otherwise it would have clogged up the flow of the story. In this illustration, I’ve decided to give Sunday a little of the ‘regal’ treatment that she believes magical practitioners deserve, and I’ve imagined her at Regal-Fox coven (before Krast’s Knights come along, of course) doing what she does best – being the centre of attention. The picture also hints at what her ‘solstice queen’ duties involve. Sunday’s association with the summer solstice is well documented, but I wanted to draw her on the winter solstice, welcoming back the sun after its long sleep, which for me personally is a far better reason to celebrate that the height of summer. Knowing the long winter nights are slowing ebbing is like letting out a huge gasp of relief! Sunday sits directly under the rising sun on December 21st, and she’s been there all night enduring the cold and meditating on this critical day of the year, because while magic might be regal, it’s also bloody hard. The whole coven will gather to see the sun rise as if from her crown of swan feathers, and as it does she becomes the living conduit between heaven and earth. Very regal.

Because this is a frosty December morning, I’ve included a lot of grey tones in her skin and hair, and the background will be likewise subdued. There were two ways to go about depicting her costume as far as I could see; one was to make it very showy, the other was to play it down and make it very simple, and that’s the look I’ve gone for. Our eyes should be on her, not what she’s wearing. When finished, we’ll see her attendants (a pair of foxes) and perhaps her thunder-sprite, Strike, and I hope the overall impact will be profoundly regal, just as Sunday would want. More to come . . .