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My First Book (Covers)

June 20, 2012 8 comments

A friend of mine told me that this post had to be epic. No reason was given. I am accustomed to following arbitrary directives from my friends, however, so I began speculating how I might bring such epicness to bear. The speculation ended rather quickly with the realization that all of the hard work had already been done for me by the mighty Chris McGrath:

Epic post achieved.

I confess to complete and utter ignorance in the realm of cover art. Never having been particularly proficient at visual art, I didn’t study it much (only taking one class in high school). The massive, dynamic world of cover artists went subconsciously heeded at best except for the occasional gripe at an inconsistency. When I finished my first draft of The Dead of Winter, I slapped a picture of a moon over a snowy forest on the front page when I sent it out to friends for beta reading. I spent literally minutes combing through Google images for a perfect decent picture of wintry doom to accompany my manuscript. Little did I know that the perfect cover could only be had by signing on with a wrathful publisher and letting them bring in a AAA-caliber artist to breathe spirit and soul into the characters.

I say “spirit and soul” rather than “life” because Chris McGrath did more than fashion physical forms for characters that (in my mind) were visually nebulous. When the Robot Overlords asked for physical descriptions, I was able to trot them out in short order, but I didn’t envision them in my head. I never had, really. When I write, my characters are words and thoughts and actions and reactions. They interact, they murder, they weep, and they laugh. They do all this in my virtual headspace, mostly divorced from the physical forms they take therein. They are spirits, flitting briefly into the physical plane before returning to the great ether.

Which I keep in a can under the table.

In creating these covers, Chris McGrath captured those ethereal essences in a way I could never have imagined. When I first saw the proofs, my sense of wonder and excitement was augmented by something else, something almost eerie. For the first time since I brought them into the world, I was actually seeing Cora and Benjamin Oglesby. The ferocious determination sparking in Cora’s eyes, the way Ben cradles the book in his arm, the overpowering threat of coldness and death surrounding them…it was all perfect. I don’t know if Chris read the manuscript prior to completing the work or not (he says it varies from job to job). If he didn’t, I recommend the skeptics of the world start testing him for psychic powers. I can’t fathom how he so precisely captured my characters based solely on third-party description.

Then again, he’s just that good. Both proofs arrived in March, at which point only a handful of people–a subset excluding the Robot Overlords themselves–had read She Returns From War. In January, Marc asked for scenes from the book that might make for a good cover. I sent him a few possibilities (at least one of which I hadn’t written yet), frustrated by my own inability to adequately describe them. Chris somehow transformed those lackluster outlines into a singularly haunting image that captures the essence of the story in a way I myself hadn’t yet realized. If having my characters stare back at me from The Dead of Winter’s cover was eerie, seeing the art for a book I had only just finished drafting was downright unsettling.

Granted, some people probably wouldn’t find it all that strange.

So here’s to you, Chris McGrath. Thank you for capturing the essence of Cora Oglesby with such grace, precision, and beauty. You probably hear such sentiments a lot in your line of work; I hope the repetition fully reinforces the belief that you do damn fine work. If ever our paths should cross, dinner’s on me.

Categories: Books, Writing

Review – The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

October 13, 2011 Leave a comment

I had intended to present a lovely piece of poetry today, full of meaning and imagery beautiful enough to moisten even the driest, most Internet-weary eye. Unfortunately, fatigue and workplace politics have dampened the wood in my fireplace of creativity, so instead you get my amateurish review of science fiction classic The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin. My review format will be shamelessly lifted from that book-devouring badass Amanda Rutter over at Floor-to-Ceiling Books.

Shevek, a brilliant physicist, decides to take action. He will seek answers, question the unquestionable, and attempt to tear down the walls of hatred that have isolated his planet of anarchists from the rest of the civilized universe. To do this dangerous task will mean giving up his family and possibly his life. Shevek must make the unprecedented journey to the utopian mother planet, Urras, to challenge to complex structures of life and living, and ignite the fires of change.

In Shevek, Le Guin has fashioned a very sympathetic and likeable main character: he is brilliant, socially awkward, and decidedly unusual-looking. In other words, the poster boy for nerds far and wide. Being one myself (though not nearly as accomplished as most), I couldn’t help but be drawn in by him from the start. The book begins with him hitching a ride on an offworld freighter, so we are introduced to his nature while he himself is coping with entirely foreign circumstances, and we (or I, at least) like him immediately.

Unfortunately, Shevek ends up being the only character with this kind of appeal and depth. His wife Takver has potential, but she enters the story late and so is deprived of much-needed exposure. Similarly, the servant Efor hints at unexplored fathoms that remain unexplored by the book’s conclusion. The remainder of the characters, both the anarchists of Anarres and the “propertarians” of Urras, occupy a relatively two-dimensional space. They operate as placeholders for the various political and economic ideologies that Le Guin kicks around: the altruistic anarchist; the manipulative, profit-minded capitalist; the aging, eccentric academician; and the polished, reserved ambassador. They function well as icons but fall short as characters.

The plot also suffers in service of the author’s message. The book oscillates between Shevek’s present and past with each chapter, but the majority of the interesting events occur in the past. The present narrative doesn’t pick up for nearly three-fourths of the book, and Takver’s absence makes it more an exercise in observing Shevek reacting to capitalist ideas than in meaningful character interactions.

The trade-off for all of this, however, is an in-depth exploration of differing economic and political models, which Le Guin handles very well. She teases out the benefits and pitfalls of philanthropic anarchism in the past narrative, placing it in stark relief against the unshackled capitalism of Shevek’s present world. His naivete turns to bitter disappointment and despair as he learns the truth of the propertarian way of life, but his radical ideas have exiled him from his homeworld, and he must turn to an unknown alien race for asylum. Thus, while Le Guin seems to empathize more with the anarchistic philosophies throughout the book, she ends with a rather dim view of human nature regardless of socio-economic policies.

Overall, I must say I enjoyed Shevek’s journey, but I found it wanting more human contact. Perhaps this is intentional on the author’s part; aside from his connection with a couple of Urrasti children, Shevek’s experiences on the capitalistic Urras can’t match his interpersonal relationships with the Anarrians. If this is the case, it was done very well. I suppose I’m just more a fan of books concluding with a punch to my emotional gut, and my viscera remained unmolested at the end of The Dispossessed.

Categories: Book Reviews, Books
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