One of the reasons I love design work is that there’s always a challenge. Fitting the elements together, the colors, the fonts, it’s always a puzzle, and I love the puzzle of it.
The challenge in Unrelenting, a novel due out April 19 from Not a Pipe Publishing, was that I offered to produce a painted illustration as part of the cover design.Paper Garden by hand-painting the faces and tulips for that illustration, and it had turned out nicely. But the style of art that authors Jessi Honard and Marie Parks wanted for Unrelenting was much more finely detailed. In fact, in sending me examples of the type of illustration they like, they referenced my cover for The Untold Gaze, the book I co-produced with my husband who’s an actual fine artist.
And yeah. Sadly, I’m no Stephen O’Donnell.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before I even started working on the painting of the book’s most important characters, Bridget and Dahlia, I created the main element of the cover design, the Grigori symbol.
Briefly, the book is about Bridget, a young woman who, in searching for her missing sister Dahlia, discovers, as the publisher describes it, “a carefully-guarded plot tied to powerful, age-old magic.” The magical dark forces in the story are called the Grigori, and their calling cards are symbols that are found in various places throughout the novel—on walls as graffiti, even on people’s skin. Here's a description from early on in the book:
An intricate array of black strokes covered the worn cinder blocks. The artist had taken care to ensure the geometric pattern was precise, creating an expanding knot of swoops.
And further down:
“It’s cool,” he remarked, stepping forward to get a closer look. “Kinda reminds me of fractal art.”
My early experimenting to create one of these symbols relied heavily on the combination of graffiti and fractal art and the description of the symbol as "an expanding knot of swoops."
But then Jessi sent me an extra explanation that really clarified the idea behind these symbols:
They are a precise written language that is so complex that people train for decades to interpret and create them. Each symbol essentially creates a 'contract' (our magic system is based on signing contracts via these symbols). There are several different types of symbols, but each individual one is unique. Some create new Grigori, some impact physical objects, and others put conditions on people. The different swirls, lines, and shapes within the symbol create these stipulations, show the signature of the signer, and give it its power.
The thing that struck me the most in this description was the idea that the symbol was a complex written language. That allowed me to think beyond the concept of pattern to something more intricate.
Once we had a symbol we all liked (Jessi, Marie, publisher Benjamin Gorman, and editor Viveca Shearin), I moved on to the sisters.
The authors sent me stock photos representing how they pictured Bridget and Dahlia looking. I found two that worked well as mirror images of each other, that felt right for the layout I wanted, and I started by sketching them out on paper. Then I moved to acrylic paints. My plan, knowing my art and design skillset, was to start the art as a painting and then bring it into Photoshop to refine it.
Annoyingly, when I had a painting that I was happy with, I found it difficult to reproduce digitally. Subtlety and softness disappeared in the scans I took, and brushstrokes came through chunky and less-than-elegant.
And finally, here are both Bridget and Dahlia and the completed cover sporting a spiffy award badge from the book earning a finalist nod for the Book Pipeline award.
Bridget hit play. Again.
A dark alleyway appeared on her phone’s screen, its rough brick walls gleaming as a fine rain fell. A puddle reflected the single light that flickered above a worn metal door. It was the kind of scene that would kick off an old noir film.
In the fourth second of the clip, a woman stepped into the alleyway from the quiet street beyond. Her face remained in shadow, a hood covering her hair. She cast her gaze over her shoulder once before wrenching open the heavy door and stepping through. Dim, hazy light shone from the window, then faded. The video ended.
Dahlia. There was no doubt in Bridget's mind. Yes, the scene was dark and misty. No, the camera never clearly captured her face. But she would recognize that walk, that glance, that posture anywhere.
It was her. It had to be her.
As Bridget watched, she found herself repeating a familiar refrain. It isn’t your fault. The words felt flatter each time. For the rest of her life, she’d never shake the angry, abrupt end to their last call. And all over a guy Bridget knew was bad news. Their fight had carved out a hollow place within her.
At first, the reigning theory was that Dahlia and her boyfriend, Dan, had run off together. But Dahlia wouldn’t do anything so extreme without confiding in her sister, even after a blowout. She refused to give up hope. Even after Dan’s car was found, Bridget knew her sister wasn’t gone. She would’ve known if Dahlia was dead.
And now she had proof. The video’s metadata told her the recording happened two months after Dahlia’s disappearance. It hadn’t arrived in her inbox until a couple of weeks ago, with the file attached. The first time she'd played those ten seconds, alone in her bedroom in North Carolina, it was a moment of vindication. Finally, she had confirmation her sister was still out there. Since then, she must have watched the clip a hundred times, relief giving way to frustration as Ivanova dismissed her.
She returned to her inbox, staring at her messages. She'd planned to send a follow-up to their meeting, but given the way Ivanova treated her, she doubted she’d get a response. The detective had made herself clear. Bridget should have known better than to trust the police.
But she had made herself clear, too. She wasn’t giving up on this lead. She needed to find out what had happened to Dahlia.
With a steadying breath, Bridget returned to the email chain containing the video. It was a long back-and-forth by now, after two weeks of correspondence. The sender, a classmate of Dahlia’s, had provided a spark of hope when everyone else had given up. Maybe he could help.
James, she wrote, I made it to Cleveland. Any chance we could talk in person tomorrow?
Bridget felt a small surge of satisfaction as she hit send and turned off the screen. She refused to keep waiting for news that never came. At least she had a plan. A loose, unformed plan, but it was better than nothing.
As she settled among the blankets, she hoped it would be enough.