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 . . .
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!
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 – 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 . . .
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 . . .
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 . . .
Inventing the kinds of spells used by Dark Raven’s witches was good fun. I really wanted each character to boast a different skill. This is useful from a writer’s perspective as it marks each character in the reader’s mind and helps differentiate them, but also it gave me the chance to create my very own magical skills. I say ‘magical skills’ rather than ‘spells’ because once I’ve described how Kolfinnia can commune with trees for instance, there’s no need to repeat an incantation or spell every time she works her magic – it’s just something she does. Readers might also have noticed the lack of spoken spells throughout the story, (in fact, I think there’s only one instance where we overhear a witch reciting a spell; when Kolfinnia’s at the river, trying to topple the Knights) this is because I find magic spells a bit hackneyed in story terms and because my rhyming isn’t that poetic! Plotting what witch had what skill was very satisfying, but no matter how fantastical their skills I always rooted them in a logical approach. Flora can raise crops in moments because it’s crucial to self-sufficiency, and Kolfinnia couldn’t have recruited trees to their battle without her skill of reading woodgrain. It’s magic – but it’s also logic.
I took the same approach with ‘devisers’, witches’ dark Illuminata counterparts, and I’ve had no less fun inventing their twisted view of magic too. The term, ‘black magic’ has become such a cliché that it’s difficult to employ in a literary sense because readers will instantly think of The Devil etc. I’ve shied away from using the term ‘black magic’ all the way through the Dark Raven Chronicles for this very reason, and because I feel it’s derogatory to true witchcraft. That said, devisers do use magic, and their aims are always wicked, or at least their victims would say so. Deviser magic is the antithesis of true witchcraft because it exploits powerful natural forces for the practitioner’s sole benefit, regardless of the harm it causes to others. If a witch wanted to study nature, they would stand back and observe without intrusion – a deviser would imprison nature and dissect it. This to me is true ‘black magic’, and not a forked tail or cloven hoof in sight. Devisers’ handiwork is evident throughout Raven’s Wand; they inspired the first-dawn experiment and engineered the chromosite interrogation creatures. Without their devisers, the Illuminata’s Knights and Lords would be armed only with sticks and stones.
Here’s a test sketch for a new deviser horror from a later Dark Raven novel. Here I’ve sketched up a drone-scout called a ‘signalman’. Remember – devisers are hostile to rival Illuminata bloodlines as much as witches, and their inventions might equally target enemy knights as much as witches. The signalman looks like it means business to anyone that gets in its way, both from a writing point of view and an illustration one, but it also has to adhere to a twisted deviser-logic. From its cross-section we see a metal skeleton inside, but what’s the power source? Wrapped around the steel, sealed in a pressure suit filled with nutrient-fluids, writhe hundreds of engineered eels – of the electric variety. Remember, this is the late 19th century and the world is just waking up to the potential of electricity. Devisers have converted living creatures into a bio-electrical circuit providing the locomotive power. The signalman’s ‘brain’ is no less cunning. A copper orb is shrouded in a cerebral membrane cloned directly from the deviser controlling the scout. Through a short-range telepathic link, the deviser, who is safely tucked away in a bunker, inhabits the signalman and puts those unfeeling robotic arms and legs to very good (or bad) use. It’s twisted, but there’s a crazy logic to it that’s plausible enough to carry the reader along.
As The Dark Raven Chronicles continue to unfold we’ll see more of deviser society and how it fits the hierarchy of the Illuminata and how sometimes it comes into conflict with it. Raven’s Wand might have started the story with a bang, but it really only scratches the surface. I look forward to unleashing new magic upon readers over the coming months and years.
One of my personal favourite characters from The Dark Raven Chronicles doesn’t take centre stage often and is easily regarded as a support character, although if she were to vanish, then places like Wildwood-coven would dry up and die. Her skills are crucial to Wildwood’s survival and it’s no exaggeration to describe her feats of magic as miraculous, and perhaps even holy.
She cannot make herself invisible, topple mountains, or shoot bolts of lightning from her fingertips, but The Illuminata nevertheless regard her brand of magic as deeply subversive, and toxic to their own agenda. Her powers are so profound, yet so fundamental to everyday life, that she is easily overlooked, but for me, Flora embodies the highest values of witchcraft. What good are lightning-bolts and superpowers if at the end of the day you have nothing to eat? Through the grace of the twins, Hethra and Halla, Flora can summon crops in any soil and any season, and turn barren earth into a productive garden in moments. For an organisation like The Illuminata, that control populations and nations through poverty, this is truly a terrifying prospect. Who would toil in the mills and mines to stave off starvation if they could emulate Flora’s miracle? Nobody. The foundations of Victoria’s Empire would sink into the sand, the pyramid of power would be inverted and the masses set free. All of this a witch like Flora could achieve if her magical skills were shared and spread.
For me, she is a hero of dignity and modesty, neither of which were accidental. Too often, heroes in popular film and fiction win through strength and force, and all too often female heroes have to become like men to achieve their victories. Kolfinnia and Flora take up arms to defend their world, but reluctantly and with consequences, and along the way they may have to take lives. Neither is it accidental that Flora is maimed – who can fail to spot her eye-patch – as when I crafted the character I knew she would be perhaps the most gentle yet most profound of Wildwood’s witches, and because cosmic laws are cruel and ironic, I imagined that she would have faced the greatest violence in her short life, because evil always seeks to undermine the greatest goodness. Flora was half-blinded as a girl, as punishment for being born to a witch. Her mother, Roslind, was taken for correctional-blessing, a civilized way to describe interrogation and capital punishment in The Illuminata’s world. And so Flora’s scars are found both inwardly and outwardly, affecting both flesh and spirit, yet her greatest triumph is to cling to her dignity and humanity despite all that’s been taken from her. As the story unfold, Flora’s skills prove the lifeblood of her coven, and later, when adapting magic to devise new ways of fighting The Illuminata, Flora’s talents veer from growing crops to growing thunder and lightning . . . although it would spoil the surprise if I were to explain how. She might not be a Lycra-clad, kung-fu babe with an attitude (thank Oak!) but Flora packs a punch that can topple empires, and best of all she’s modest about her powers and gentle with it – the rarest of blooms.