Evan Winter’s debut novel, The Rage of Dragons, is another success story of the likes of Josiah Bancroft and Jonathan French. A year and change after he self-published his debut novel, it is coming out in print from a major publisher. Orbit will release the hardcover edition in July, while the reedited ebook is available now. This story of a reluctant young fighter growing up in a cultural built on endless war, it has been called Game of Thrones meets Gladiator, or, as acquiring editor Brit Hvide put it on Twitter, “it’s got dragons and warrior training and a matriarchal society and all the characters are black because why not?”
Needly to say, we’re pretty excited to read it—and our excited wasn’t exactly tempered by Orbit’s recent reveal of the cover (see the full version below!). Evan recently spoke with artist Karla Ortiz, the cover illustrator, about the process of creating the cover, representation in pop culture, and artistic inspiration, and we’re happy to share that conversation with you today.
Evan Winter: I think book covers are immensely important. They’re a book’s calling card. They’re its most consistent and prevalent marketing tool and most importantly, they’re a promise to readers. I want to thank you for creating a wonderful piece and for giving my story its promise. I’m curious, what was the creative brief and how did we come to the cover that we have today?
Karla Ortiz: The creative brief is interesting because whenever I get one of these briefs it’s almost like I’m a detective and I’m getting the file cases. We got a short brief little story of who you are as the author and what the story feels like. Not any specific story points, although there were some specifics like here’s some of our characters, here’s some of the feelings, some of the things they visually want to bring into the whole story.
Orbit’s art director, Lauren [Panepinto], is the best. We’ve been wanting to work together for a really long time. She actually hit me up. She said specifically, “Karla. I have a book and I really want you to work on it. I’d think you’d be perfect for it and here’s why.” She gave me a little bit of that brief and what you as the author were trying to bring to the story. I was just like, “Yeah, I would love to be a part of it.” She challenged me actually, because most of my illustration work is very heavily character-centric. If left to my own devices, I would have painted all the characters and I would have spoiled the story for readers. We went through a series of sketches and she had pointed at a painting that I did a long time ago in which I had a relief of figures in the wall. That’s always a subject that I’m in love with. I love relief sculptures and just how dynamic and magnificent they can be.
Are there parts of the final cover that point to specific scenes or characters in the book?
Evan: I feel as if the way the cover is, it’s actually better than if it pointed to a specific scene in the book because what you did speaks to the tone of the book. It speaks to the direction that the story goes and the direction it will be going. I think that that’s probably more important than a specific scene. Even though, as a reader, it’s always fun when you get to a point in the book and you go, “Oh that’s the cover.” It totally is fun. But I think that a cover often ends up needing to do a bit more than that. Because too often, individual scenes can’t really speak to the story or the greater idea that you’re trying to tell. I really loved the cover because I think what it does is it captures the tone of the story and the kind of idea that I’m going for, which is that there’s something larger than individual moments that’s happening. Something that has weight and almost a sense of history to it. Because that is part of the goal, I want the story to have the feel of almost a history being told.
Karla: I worked on Black Panther. For the cover of The Rage of Dragons, I used a lot of the process that I used for creating stuff for Black Panther, where you look at a lot of things from an area, you research the history of it and why they used certain things. I had one version where it was a shield and bunch of swords and weaponry. There was another version where it was just the background relief and the statues. Then there was another version that had little statues but there were fire embers all over. When Lauren came back to me, she’s like, “Okay, we love all of them so let’s put them all together.”
Evan: One of the things I really like about the way it’s all come together and how you used the relief but still have the figures within the relief is… Very often people talk about Africa as if it doesn’t have its own history. What you’ve done is you’ve almost created a feeling of that. We hear all the time about Roman and Greek history, and we often see things in reliefs on the buildings that they made and what you’ve done here is you’ve said, “Look, let’s take that idea of history and look, Africa has it, too.”
Karla: Where I’m from, Puerto Rico, the stories most people grow up with are the Spaniard stories, but the ones that are really, really interesting are those of our Indian heritage, the Taino. The stories of the gods that they have. Because we get hurricanes all the time, they named a specific god that comes over and then you go and run and hide in the mountains. There are great stories and great legends and things that you’re just like, this is just as cool as any kind of Roman mythology or Viking mythology. Every place has that. It’s one of the things I’m so excited to start seeing, especially in fantasy. I’ve been seeing a trend of authors being like, “Hey, you know what? We’ve told these stories. The Vikings and Romans, typical fantasy so long, what about the gods we don’t talk about? What about the mythology we don’t talk about?” That’s what I’ve been so fascinated with lately.
Evan: I completely, completely, completely agree with you. Civilizations everywhere have these stories and we have to start telling them. It’s important that we hear them, I think, and see the places where we have the commonalities and we need to value the differences.
Karla: Seeing Black Panther nominated for all those [awards] is so cool. There’s definitely changes happening in Hollywood. You’re in the forefront of that, too, with your book, as well. What kind of stories are being told? It’s now expanded to reflect our reality more, of how varied and how diverse we are. I think that’s so exciting.
Evan:It’s an extremely exciting time to be trying to create, I think. Especially because not very long ago, there weren’t very many opportunities for people like you and me, I think, to be able to create as easily, and with as much support from the places that can help you make a living doing that creation. Black Panther obviously is a big Marvel Studio movie, but it’s like a lot of this is coming out of people making their own stuff in their own way, because they’re going, “You know what, I can’t wait for somebody to let me make something. I have to make it now.”
Karla: That also creates a ripple that’s unforeseen. Like, how many young people see that and say, “Oh, I can be a hero. I’m not the lackey.” Like, for example for me, “Oh, I’m not a housekeeper,” ’cause that’s what everything in Hollywood would always tell me. You’re Hispanic, you’re just going to clean a house. Like, “Oh, I can actually be a superhero. I can have defining roles that are exciting. I can be heroic, I can be strong, I can have flaws, I can be everything.” Especially within the fantasy realm you can allow yourself to dream to that extent. That’s life-changing for people.
Evan: It’s always wonderful to hear it. You’re completely right, and it makes a difference. I took my son to go see Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It was so amazing to watch. I went with my son and my wife. My wife is not particularly into comic book stuff. She was like, “Oh, we’re going for the little guy, so I’ll go.” She loved it. That’s not what she’s into, and she’s like, “That’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.”
Karla: Me and my boyfriend saw it three times. That’s how good it was. My favorite was going to a matinee or seeing little kids coming out and just being like, “I could have the mask, too.”
Evan: That’s the most important thing for me. I got to sit next to my son in that movie theater and he got to watch Miles Morales be Spider-Man. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about being able to see yourself in art, being represented, because helps us make sense of the real world, I think.
A lot of the time in the writing community you hear the idea of, “Oh, you have to really be in the mood or feeling it.” And then the other side says, “Well, it’s just butt in chair.” Personally, I outline, and try to put ‘butt in chair’ because then I know what I need to write and can’t get blocked. After that, if you put your butt in the chair and you know what you’re supposed to write, you just write. The other thing about simply doing the work without too much focus on ‘waiting for the muse’ is that, even on the days you’re not feeling it, if you just do the work, you’ll never let stuff happen on the page or the screen that’s below your level of craft. You just won’t. Just keep going and then, at the end, you can revise, revise, revise until it gets to at least the height of your craft. Maybe the height of your craft doesn’t end up being where you want it to be, but that’s what practice is for, right?
Karla: I teach a lot and I do a lot of workshops and that’s one of the things I often tell students. There’s also a lot of artists in my industry that are like, “Oh, I don’t paint unless I feel inspired.” But inspiration is so fleeting. And inspiration is just not reliable. I work in film right now. With film you can’t wait for it to inspire you. You’ve got to go. What I’ve found is that sometimes I don’t feel it at all but I tell myself I’m going to do just a couple little marks. That helps me inch myself into that mood and suddenly, before you know it, you are inspired.
Rather than waiting for that very specific moment when the new moon comes in and the stars align and you’re just like, “Oh, now I feel it.” And you better hope that you don’t get a phone call, ’cause then you’re screwed.
Evan: And then you’re done. And those moments happen where all the stars align and it’s beautiful.
Karla: Yeah, it’s gorgeous.
Evan: The funny thing is when I read my work back afterwards, I can’t tell when the stars align and I can’t tell when I was having an awful shitty day, the words are just there. You don’t even know the days you didn’t feel it because you just read the words and you’re like, “Okay, that works. That’s great.”
Karla: That’s perfect. After a while you look back at a painting and … I do remember some of my paintings where I remember not really enjoying it, but now that I look at with new eyes, it doesn’t matter. It’s fine. It’s not as big of a deal as I remember it to be.
Evan: It was an absolute pleasure to get the chance to speak to you. Thank you so much for an amazingly beautiful, beautiful cover and a cover that I’m very, very proud of. I’m extremely excited for the rest of the world to see it.
Karla: Me too. I’m excited for the book to hit. I’m excited for people to be just like, “Damn.” Thank you. It was just an honor. It was an honor to meet you, and thank you so much for your time and your vision.
More about The Rage of Dragons:
The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable fight for almost two hundred years. Their society has been built around war and only war. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.
Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war.
Young, gift-less Tau knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured, get out early, and settle down to marriage, children, and land. Only, he doesn’t get the chance.
Those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fixated on revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path. He’ll become the greatest swordsman to ever live, a man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him.
The Rage of Dragons launches a stunning and powerful debut epic fantasy series that readers are already calling “the best fantasy book in years.