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 . . .
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!
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!
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 . . .
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.