With the end of the year approaching fast, I thought I’d better do my annual blog post. I think we can all agree that 2020 has been a wonderful year in which everything has gone swimmingly and there were definitely no problems. It’s also the year in which I decided to try and get back into drawing. I loved it at school, got put off by an annoying careers advisor and am only now getting back into it seventy or so years later. I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process, chiefly that I see the world as entirely brown. I’m trying to draw every day and I thought I’d group some of this year’s sketches together here then, next year, if I do the same, I hope to see some improvement. Or at least different shades of brown. Please leave a comment if you have any thoughts.
I’ve been knee-deep in work since that last post so I thought I’d write a quick update in case anyone stops by here and thinks I’ve been slacking or gone to the great word processor in the sky. The Ingenious came out earlier this year and had some lovely reviews (see the reviews page) but was mysteriously overlooked for the Booker Prize. I can only assume this was a vendetta-fueled act of sabotage by Salman Rushdie. He’s had it in for me ever since that unfortunate dance-off incident.
So far this year I’ve written two more novels, a whole swathe of short stories and audio dramas and I’m halfway through a third novel. Only two of these releases have been publicly announced. The first is Ghoulslayer, which is my first chance to grapple with one of Warhammer’s loudest heroes, Gotrek Gurnisson (famously narrated by a full-volume Brian Blessed in the audio dramas). It was a really fun, rollicking, gore-fest of a book to write and I’m excited to see what people think of it. It’s released in September.
After that I wrote a book called City of Light, which is my third Mephiston novel set in Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 universe. A lot has happened in the setting since I first started writing about Mephiston and this was my chance to show him getting to grips with the apocalyptic events that have torn his galaxy in half. 40k fans should be able to tell from the title which (wonderfully deranged) location the story takes place in. It works as a standalone novel, but also concludes a lot of the plot threads and character arcs I established in the previous two novels. It’s out later this year.
As I say, I’m also halfway through another Warhammer novel (I’m planning to write five this year) and Games Workshop offered me some really enticing projects that should keep me busy up to Christmas. Then, in 2020, alongside lots more Warhammer fiction I’m going to try and find time to write another ‘original’ fantasy novel in the vein of The Ingenious (although possibly not in the same setting).
On top of that, some of my favourite old Warhammer novels have been collected into a beefy omnibus. The Orion books were planned as one big, fantasy epic, so I’m chuffed that they’ll now be sold as a single book. It goes on sale next month.
All my writing this year has been fueled by one of the best albums I have ever heard. Seriously, I have not been this excited about music since I was a teenager. It’s an album called Fugues by Kogumaza. If you buy it you are guaranteed to write gud.
That’s it for now. More news when I have it. Stay safe, squirrels.
My latest Warhammer 40,000 novel, Blackstone Fortress, goes on sale this weekend on the Games Workshop site. I’m really proud of how this one turned out so it’s great that I’ve managed to bag yet another gorgeous cover. Rachel Williams (designer) and Christian Byrne (illustrator) at GW have done some amazing work getting the look and feel just right.
The book tells the story of what happens when a bold, noble man has his character broken by a harsh, alien environment and I love the way that’s been captured in the graphics.
The book is available in two editions – the foiled, embossed version shown above, and also a standard edition that comes with cool cover art by an illustrator I’ve not heard of before, Mauro Belfiore. The standard edition has a very different feel and I love the way Mauro has captured the proud, determined, explorer aspect of Draik’s character.
Rachel Williams, Senior Designer at Black Library, was kind enough to answer a few questions about how she designed the limited edition and her work process in general.
What’s your working process at BL? Do you receive a brief, have to read the novel, talk to an editor? How does it work? Do you sketch out ideas on paper, or work solely on screen?
The process usually starts with a chat to the editors. They let me know the main plot points, key characters and settings and give me an overall idea of what the book is all about. I’ll then start gathering research, looking through existing art, doing a little reading and scribbling some ideas on paper. There is a wealth of inspiring material for all the Warhammer worlds, Blackstone Fortress was no exception! The art within the game that has a dark, eerie aesthetic, lit with a blue light. It’s something we wanted to bring into the design of the book.
For Blackstone Fortress the concept for the cover art was for a portrait of Janus Draik to be shattering and becoming part of the crystal-like walls of the fortress – symbolising the confusion and danger within the fortress and how he will risk everything to obtain his prize. Sometimes I would create the cover art myself, for this one we commissioned Christian to create art for the cover, as he does awesome linework art.
What’s the difference between designing a limited edition BL cover and a standard edition BL cover? Are there different considerations?
For the standard books it’s important we make sure all the information is clear and obvious, so it’s easy to understand what the book is about at a glance from across the store, meaning people can easily pick up something that may be of interest to them. The format of standard books and the materials used to create them are also set in stone. But, for limited’s, we don’t really have that constraint. The only rule is that they need to reflect the content of the book and it needs to be possible to manufacture. As they’re designed as collector’s items there’s loads of creative freedom. Which is a really amazing thing to have as a designer!
Is there anything unique about designing Black Library books, as opposed designing any SF or fantasy novel covers?
The worlds within Black Library books are really well established, so there are lots of considerations around how we visually reflect stories, characters and settings in a way that’s most sympathetic to how they have been previously described and shown. It’s these details that make something look as if it’s part of the Warhammer worlds rather than belong other Sci-fi or fantasy settings. But equally, these worlds are really inspiring, and it’s especially fun to create books that feel a bit like artefacts come to life.
What influences you as a designer? Where do you find your inspiration? Are you a fan of any particular designers?
My biggest design influences are often historical. Gothic and Baroque architecture, 15th-century art, reliquary and specimens, bone churches, bejewelled skeletons and Victorian curiosities – anything a bit creepy! I also love 70/60s graphic design, bold colour palettes and clean lines. I love retro sci-fi artists, like Ralph McQuarrie.
Was there anything particularly fun or challenging about designing the Blackstone Fortress cover?
It was great that we were able to use that lovely shiny blue foil, not much lends itself to that colour palette, but it was perfect for Blackstone Fortress.
Which of your BL book designs are you most proud of?
That’s tough – there’s been so many inspiring books I’ve been able to work on! I think Neferata is one of my faves – creating that feminine, yet creepy line work was great fun and I’ve always loved the romantic gothic style – ‘Death’ stuff is also my jam! There’s also more, one in particular, coming out in the future that I’m really proud of, and also can’t wait to read!
When Marc Gascoigne (chief cyborg at Angry Robot Books) suggested John Coulthart as the cover artist for The Ingenious I was delighted. I’d already admired John’s amazing Under the Pendulum Sun and Daughters of Forgotten Light covers so I was excited to see how he captured the essence of Athanor (sounds like a perfume). It panned out even better than I’d hoped. Just look at the beauteous bloody thing:
John’s done an amazing job of capturing the right mood and some of the novel’s key themes. All that intricate line work isn’t just pretty, it’s crammed with insightful nods to the text and the alchemical nature of the world Isten inhabits. You can see Isten herself, waiting nonchalantly at the side of the street, dwarfed by the bizarre, labyrinthine city she would so dearly love to escape from. Here’s the cover John designed for Jeanette Ng‘s Under the Pendulum Sun:
I know how hard it can be for a cover designer to please the client, the publisher and still scratch their own creative itch. In my misspent youth (well, misspent slightly less old) I designed a few novel covers myself and, though I certainly never mastered it as an art form, I definitely gained some insight into the various pitfalls. I designed this cover for a friend, Mark Newton, just as he was starting out as an author.
And here are a few designs I did for a local publisher, Five Leaves, which is led by the irrepressible Ross Bradshaw (who now runs by far the coolest bookshop in Nottingham).
Unlike John, I can’t draw for toffee, but I used to enjoy playing around with photos and typography. I saw Coralie Bickford-Smith (the genius behind all these beautiful clothbound Penguin covers) do a talk in London, years ago. It was around the time everyone was pronouncing the death of the printed book due to the rise in digital publishing. She made the point that people will always want to own physical books as long as they are beautiful objects in their own right and I think it’s interesting that book design seems to be in a better place than ever. Designers and artists always thrive under pressure and constraints and the need for physical books to earn their place in people’s homes has led to some incredible covers over the last decade or so. Cover artists everywhere have my undying respect. On the whole, I think it’s far easier to write a novel than try and design one.
I’ve spoken to authors who require absolute silence to write, or the ambient sound of a bustling cafe, but I can’t string two words together unless I’m wearing massive 1970s-style headphones and blasting my ears with music. I suppose it works as a kind of mantra, dropping me back into the same state of mind I was in whenever I was last at the keyboard. I have a nice view of from my window and I’ve filled my study with all sorts of inspirational tat, but I always become blind to the real world as soon as I hear the playlist I associate with a particular novel. It’s often just one album, played on a loop, circling round my head for months until I don’t really hear the notes any more, just a weird, white noise that flips me from my Nottingham semi to whatever alternate reality I’m currently writing about. With two young children howling round the house, it can also work as a sonic barrier when I’m being a neglectful dad, burying my head in wizards when I should be making dens with cushions or watching Sing for the 32nd time. The playlist for my next (soon to be announced!) 40k novel was mainly ambient, synthy stuff: Laurie Spiegel, Brian Eno, Steve Roach etc. At one point, I had this same Laurie Spiegel track on a loop for hours on end and I really did start to feel quite spaced out after a while. I love the icy, inhuman beauty of it and it really conjures up a cold, inhuman void kind of atmosphere.
The Ingenious (out in Feb, through Angry Robot!) was written to a playlist consisting of three albums featuring the Malian kora player Toumani Diabaté and another Malian musician, Ali Farka Touré. I only discovered the albums a few weeks before starting the book and they influenced me a lot as a I was describing the city. There’s something magical about how the kora and the guitar twist around each other, glittering and sparkling and tumbling around the melodies. It helped me imagine the sharp, twisted, labyrinthine architecture of Athanor. My original idea was for a Persian-inspired city but as these weird, brittle songs snaked around my head, the city transformed itself, blossoming into something stranger and more convoluted than I had originally imagined.
All those snaking, twisting melodies even changed the prose. I usually try and rein in my more rambling passages (howls of disbelief from anyone who’s ever had to edit my writing) but with this book I relaxed into the flow of the words and let the rhythms tumble away from me. Obviously, I’m not so deluded as to put myself in the same category, but I’ve always thought how wonderful it would be, when describing a fictional city, to write something that comes even close to that rambling, flowing, marble-run opening of Bleak House:
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.
Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ‘prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging in the misty clouds.
Gas looming through the fog in divers places in the streets, much as the sun may, from the spongey fields, be seen to loom by husbandman and ploughboy. Most of the shops lighted two hours before their time—as the gas seems to know, for it has a haggard and unwilling look.
The raw afternoon is rawest, and the dense fog is densest, and the muddy streets are muddiest near that leaden-headed old obstruction, appropriate ornament for the threshold of a leaden-headed old corporation, Temple Bar. And hard by Temple Bar, in Lincoln’s Inn Hall, at the very heart of the fog, sits the Lord High Chancellor in his High Court of Chancery.
Never can there come fog too thick, never can there come mud and mire too deep, to assort with the groping and floundering condition which this High Court of Chancery, most pestilent of hoary sinners, holds this day in the sight of heaven and earth.