Last year, as we prepared for the publication of A Gathering of Ravens, one hope I had was for each section of the book to bear a piece of art, an illustration relevant to the content. Through the medium of Facebook, I met California-based artist and creator Robert Zoltan. Zoltan was interested in doing the cover, if that position was available, and as a way of showcasing his awesome talent he created a series of illustrations based on my descriptions.
Oh my god. They were gorgeous. Zoltan is a painter of some note, but where he really shines is with classic pen-and-ink drawings. Here, for the first time, is the gallery of illustrations created by Zoltan:
The first comes from a deleted scene, where Grimnir encounters the Washer in the Water:
On a whim, he changed direction and followed the sound. It led him east, down into a wooded hollow between two low ridges. He sprang down shelves of lichen-slick rock, split by ash and alder boles, until he reached the heart of the hollow. Here, amid thickets of hazel as densely woven as wattles, a creek bubbled along in its stony bed, swollen with runoff from the ridges above. The sound came clearer, now. A wet, rhythmic slap-slap-slap. Grimnir’s nostrils flared. He caught a fleeting scent, like ancient cloth mixed with day-old blood. “Well, well!” he said to himself. “Not all of them are gone, after all.” And like a shadow the skraelingr crept along, following the sound downstream.
Next came another study of Grimnir, this time from a scene in the section of the book where he and Étaín get separated outside the besieged town of Nunna’s Ford:
The sky above glowed brighter as the town of Nunna’s Ford burned, throwing the ruins into sharp silhouette; screams filtered over the crown of the hill and down to the stream bank. Grimnir’s keen ears picked out faint cries of triumph mingled with pleas of mercy. But the miasma of thatch-smoke and roasting flesh filling his nostrils told him there would be none.
Shielded by bulrushes and willow fronds, Grimnir crouched and watched his Saxon enemies.
The next piece is one of the more heartfelt works of art I’ve seen. It is a character study of Étaín — weary, her world upended, her faith sorely tested. We sent Zoltan photos of my wife in similar poses, and he incorporated elements of those photos into his work. It brought her to tears:
Étaín circled the ruin, calming herself and breathing deeply. The snow was coming down heavier, now; it stuck to the brown wool of her cassock – cut no different from the monastic habit of a Benedictine monk. She pulled up the hood, its peak casting her thin face in shadow, and folded her hands into the voluminous sleeves. She walked with a slow and measured pace, as though taking a turn about the grounds of her cloister.
As she passed what must have been the entrance to the steading, she looked up. For an instant, morning sunlight pierced the clouds to illuminate the lintel and center-post, creating the silhouette of a mighty crucifix. Étaín stopped. Hope filled her breast. She crossed herself, knelt in the swirling snow, and prayed.
The next piece ranks among my favorites. It’s a sumptuous blend of colors and imagery that captures the Witch of Dubhlinn in her finest moment — weaving the doom of men in the chords of a song:
From a chest against the wall, near her brocaded divan, she drew forth a triangular cláirseach, the small harp favored by her people. Of willow and oak was its sound-box, and its graceful neck was carved and inlaid with bone; it bore twenty-nine strings of spun silver wire, with a thirtieth string wrought of black iron that had fallen from the sky. Kormlada sat in a straight-backed chair and teased out an eerie melody with her fingertips. “His pride,” she said. “And he is a proud creature. Proud of his deceit, proud of his lies, proud to claim what is not his portion to claim.” Her eyes crinkled as a subtle theme emerged from the melody; the soft sounds snared the incense smoke, weaving it into disembodied figures that danced and writhed . . .
And, with a smile of unrivaled malice, the Witch of Dubhlinn began to sing.
Finally, we have an homage to the master of thunderous fury, Frank Frazetta. Grimnir in the Battle of the Plain of Chluain Tarbh, outside the walls of Dubhlinn. Here is a creature in his element: raw, profane, violent; his quest for vengeance hangs on the edge of a sword:
Trumpets howled and shrieked over the din, but not to relay orders. This was no game of thrones where generals sacrificed and maneuvered on the backs of their soldiers; this was the most primal sort of conflict – Odin’s weather, the red chaos of slaughter – where men stood breast to breast and shield to shield, and dealt the same blows they took in kind.
Spears cracked and shivered. Shields split. Links of woven mail parted beneath the edge of an axe. Swords flashed in the rising dust, and blood dampened the earth. Thunderous cries mixed with piteous howls. Men struck and reeled; the dying clasped the knees of the living like a lover refusing to be put aside for another. The air – so bright and clear only moments before – reeked now of iron scraping iron; it was redolent with the coppery stench of spilled gore, with the hot stink of vomit, and with the fetor riven bellies.
Grimnir was in his element. Laughing, he came at Bjarki low and fast; his axe sang clear of its moorings, lashed out, and rebounded from the face of Half-Dane’s shield.
There is a particular pleasure in seeing what you’ve written come to life. I cherish these images, for they’re proof something can exist outside the boundaries of my imagination.
Visit Robert Zoltan’s website to view more of his art, and follow his blog at Dream Tower Media for updates on his current project, an illustrated edition of E. R. Burroughs A Princess of Mars! You might even consider becoming a patron!
Postscript: The publisher ultimately decided to do the cover for A Gathering of Ravens in-house. This, though, was the cover Zoltan created:
All images are copyright Zoltan. Used with permission.