Tag: Stephanie Burgis

Book Review: Congress of Secrets, by Stephanie Burgis

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The year is 1814, and the Congress of Vienna has just begun. The Emperor Napoleon has been defeated, and the great powers of Europe have gathered in Vienna to carve up Europe among themselves. Along with them have come the powerful, the deposed nobility of old Europe, and the opportunistic, hoping to grab power and wealth for themselves. Amid glittering balls, parties, and salons, the great of Europe meet, plot, and position themselves.

Into Vienna come Lady Caroline Wyndham, a wealthy English widow, and charming con man Michael Steinhüller. Both of them have secrets. Caroline was born Karolina Vogl, daughter of a radical Viennese printer. Caroline’s father was arrested by the secret police and her childhood was cruelly stolen from her by dark alchemy in the cells of the secret police.

Michael, meanwhile, was once the apprentice of Caroline’s father. Neither has seen the other since their childhoods were shattered, and both have returned to Vienna with plans of their own, Caroline’s to save her father, and Michael’s to pull one last con before he retires. Neither of them expect to encounter the other, and when they do, both their plans will be in danger, and so will they.

I’ve said before that a really well-researched piece of historical fiction can be as full of wonder as the most inventive fantasy or science fiction novel, and this historical fantasy proves that. Every scene comes alive with wonderful, vivid, and sometimes alien detail that make you feel like you’re really there. I lived for six months in Vienna, and in Congress of Shadows, I really felt like I was back there, strolling around the first district or through the royal palaces. This is lush and all-enveloping.

The characters, too, are incredibly involving and well-conceived. From the moment you first meet Caroline, Michael, and the third main character, Peter Riesenbeck, you are swept into their stories, their fears, their desires, and their plans. But it’s not just the main characters who are so believable and enticing. There is also a whole array of historical figures – from the quipping Prince de Ligne and the paranoid Emperor Francis to the manipulative head of the secret police, Count Pergen – and fictional counterparts who leap off the page.

The story is fast paced and increasingly tense as Caroline, Michael, and Peter’s plans begin to crumble in the face of the dark alchemy wielded by Count Pergen.

This is a fantastic book and I have no hesitation in giving it five stars. I loved Stephanie Burgis’s previous historical fantasy, Masks and Shadows, but Congress of Secrets is even better.

5 stars!

Buy Now: Indiebound | Book Depository (international) | Amazon U.S. | Amazon UK

Book Review: Masks and Shadows, by Stephanie Burgis

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The year is 1779, the place is the Eszterháza Palace in Hungary. The famous castrato singer Carlo Morelli is travelling to the palace as a guest of Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, but he is not the only one. He’s accompanied by a famous alchemist, Ignaz Von Born, and a man he suspects to be a spy. Already arrived at the palace is the recently widowed Charlotte von Steinbeck visiting her younger sister, Sophie.

But there are plots brewing at the palace. The Habsburg Emperor and Empress are about to visit, and there are forces at work who will stop at nothing to assassinate them. There is blackmail, alchemy, and betrayal, and not everyone is who they seem to be.

Masks and Shadows is a historical fantasy set in an unusual location with characters who are quite unique. If you’ve read Stephanie Burgis’s previous middle grade books, you’ll know she has a knack for convincing, lively, three dimensional characters with complex motivations, and in this, her first adult novel, she has been able to create some of the most interesting characters you’re likely to read in a fantasy novel, from the castrato singer, Carlo Morelli, playing a role he no longer believes in to Charlotte von Steinbeck, the very proper young widow who is forced to confront the scandalous fact that her younger sister, Sophie, is the very public mistress of Prince Esterházy. Then there are the members of the prince’s opera company who are unwillingly caught up in the plots and Sophie’s husband, a member of the prince’s guard, unsuccessfully trying not to regret the deal he made that allows his own wife to be the prince’s mistress.

Add to those the real historical characters in the book: Prince Esterházy and his wife, the princess forced to live in the palace alongside the prince’s mistress, the composer Joseph Haydn, and a host of others and you have a setting that is rich and highly believable.

This is an enormously well-researched book, full of colour and atmosphere, but it’s not one of those books where the author feels the need to pile all the research on you. The story is fast-moving, touching, tense and enormously involving. You will genuinely believe you are in the Esterháza Palace along with these wonderful and conflicted characters, and the story won’t let you go until you reach the desperate finale.

This book draws heavily on opera and the opera company contracted to Prince Esterházy. I am not a fan of opera (to say the least) and know pretty much nothing about eighteenth century Hungary but everything about the story thread of the company trying to put on a performance of Haydn’s new opera for the visiting royals while being unwittingly caught up in the various plots and under threat of disapproval from the unforgiving prince caught me up and enthralled me.

Masks and Shadows is the kind of book that utterly absorbs you and drags you through the conflicting emotions and dilemmas of its rich cast of characters.

I would highly recommend this to anyone who likes fantasy, historical fiction or romance.

A brilliant and unusual book.

5 Stars

Buy Now: Indiebound | Wordery (International) | Barnes and Noble | Amazon US | Amazon UK

Secret Countdown: Six (Other) Books for 2016

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Nine Days To Go

I’m blogging every day about writing, books, inspiration, and maybe the odd story until SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB is published on January 12, 2016!

Today I’m talking about six fantasy and science fiction books that aren’t Secrets of the Dragon Tomb and that I’m looking forward to in 2016.

Bounders, by Monica Tesler

Middle Grade Science Fiction

Publication date: January 5th, 2016

You don’t get a great number of pure science fiction middle grade books, but Monica Tesler proves that they can be done extremely well. This is the story a group of children bred to be “bounders”, who can leap through space and who are recruited to Earth’s expeditionary and defence force.

Generations ago, undesirable genetic traits were bred out of humanity, but now that diversity has been found to be useful, and the genetic traits have been reintroduced for this select group of children, producing a neurodiverse group who have trouble fitting in but whose talents are essential.

The book shares some of the same science fiction space as Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers, but it brings its own unique take on the training of children for war. There are mysteries, adventures, danger and a very cool world in which to play, as well as a unique take on space travel.

Goodreads | Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Author Website

The Eye of Midnight, by Andrew Brumbach

Middle Grade Fantasy

Publication Date: March 8th, 2016

On a stormy May day in 1929, William and Maxine arrive on the doorstep of Battersea Manor to spend the summer with a grandfather they barely remember. Soon after they settle in, Grandpa receives a cryptic telegram and promptly whisks the cousins off to New York City so that he can meet an unknown courier and collect a very important package. Before he can do so, however, Grandpa vanishes without a trace.

When the cousins stumble upon Nura, a tenacious girl from Turkey, she promises to help them track down the parcel and rescue Grandpa. But with cold-blooded gangsters and a secret society of assassins all clamoring for the same mysterious object, the children soon find themselves in a desperate struggle just to escape the city’s dark streets alive.

This book has been described as a cross between Indiana Jones and the The DaVinci Code. Exciting!

Goodreads | Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Author Website

Masks and Shadows, by Stephanie Burgis

Historical Fantasy

Publication Date: April 12, 2016

The year is 1779, and Carlo Morelli, the most renowned castrato singer in Europe, has been invited as an honored guest to Eszterháza Palace. With Carlo in Prince Nikolaus Esterházy’s carriage ride a Prussian spy and one of the most notorious alchemists in the Habsburg Empire. Already at Eszterháza is Charlotte von Steinbeck, the very proper sister of Prince Nikolaus’s mistress. Charlotte has retreated to the countryside to mourn her husband’s death. Now, she must overcome the ingrained rules of her society in order to uncover the dangerous secrets lurking within the palace’s golden walls. Music, magic, and blackmail mingle in a plot to assassinate the Habsburg Emperor and Empress–a plot that can only be stopped if Carlo and Charlotte can see through the masks worn by everyone they meet.

This is an utterly unique historical fantasy. It’s incredibly lush and entirely involving, with characters you genuinely won’t forget. I found myself completely immersed in the 18th century world, full of princes, plots, and opera. Don’t miss it.

Goodreads | Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Author Website

The Remarkable Journey of Charlie Price, by Jennifer Maschari

Contemporary Middle Grade Fantasy

Publication Date: February 23rd, 2016

Ever since twelve-year-old Charlie Price’s mom died, he feels like his world has been split into two parts. Before included stargazing and Mathletes and Saturday scavenger hunts with his family. After means a dad who’s completely checked out, comically bad dinners, and grief group that’s anything but helpful. It seems like losing Mom meant losing everything else he loved, too.

When he follows his sister into a magical world he finds it is identical to their own with one key difference – Mom is alive. But this idealized other world holds terrifying secrets, and he’ll have to defeat monsters both real and imagined or risk losing himself, his sister, and the true memory of his mother forever.

This is a touching, emotionally powerful middle grade contemporary fantasy.

Goodreads | Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Author Website

Where Futures End, by Parker Peevyhouse

Young Adult Science Fiction

Publication Date: February 9th, 2016

Where Futures End is a novel made up from five interconnected short stories. The first story is set right now (or very close to now) and the subsequent ones step into the future, developing the story up to some unstated point over a hundred years from now. Our universe has somehow intersected with another universe, and a very few people can cross between them, weakening the barrier between the universes.

Over the course of the five stories we experience the lives of different characters – some of whom are able to cross between universes and some of whom aren’t – as the intersection alters both universes, as technology advances, and as global warming begins to take hold.

So what’s so great about Where Futures End? Well, first up the structure is not easy to pull off. Different characters? Different time periods? Different voices? Not an easy thing to manage, and something that could go terribly wrong. Well, it doesn’t. It works beautifully, and rather than losing narrative drive, the end of each story leaves you wanting to read the next to add more pieces to the puzzle. Each adds another layer, revealing more about what was going in the previous stories while developing its own story.

Ambitious. Clever. Gripping. You should add this one to your wish-list right away!

Goodreads | Indiebound | Amazon | Barnes and Noble | Author Website

Occupy Me, by Trisha Sullivan

Science Fiction

Publication Date: January 21, 2016

Trisha Sullivan is one of the most intelligent, insightful, and imaginative writers working in science fiction today. It’s an absolute delight to have a new science fiction novel from her after almost six years.

A woman with wings that exist in another dimension. A man trapped in his own body by a killer. A briefcase that is a door to hell. A conspiracy that reaches beyond our world. Breathtaking SF from a Clarke Award-winning author.

Tricia Sullivan has written an extraordinary, genre defining novel that begins with the mystery of a woman who barely knows herself and ends with a discovery that transcends space and time. On the way we follow our heroine as she attempts to track down a killer in the body of another man, and the man who has been taken over, his will trapped inside the mind of the being that has taken him over.

And at the centre of it all a briefcase that contains countless possible realities.

Note: This is published in the UK right now, but you can easily order it internationally from Amazon or Book Depository.

Goodreads | Amazon | Book Depository | Author Website

That’s it! There are plenty more great novels coming out in 2016, but these six look particularly appealing.

Secret Countdown: The five best bits of writing advice

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Ten Days To Go

It’s ten days until SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB is officially published! I figured I’d count down until the big day with a series of blog posts on books, writing, and maybe the odd story. Yes, folks, this may be the only time in my life that I blog ten days in a row.

Today I’m starting with the five best pieces of writing advice I’ve ever received.

1: Everyone is the hero of their own story

Yes, you have a hero for your book. Maybe more than one. But they are not the only heroes. Every single character who appears in your book has their own story and they are the hero of that story. That spear-carrier who blocks your hero’s way at the castle gate? She’s not there for the benefit of your hero. She’s there because she’s living her own story. And in that story she is the hero. She’s got ambitions and frustrations, wants, needs, fears, hopes. If you know what those are, she isn’t a cardboard cut-out. She adds to the story.

The same goes for your bad guy (if you have one). They didn’t go out that morning deciding to be evil and make life difficult for your hero. They think they are doing the right thing, for themselves, even if not for anyone else. They have their reasons and their motivations. Know what those are and you’re well on the way to a rich, three-dimensional story.

(Advice from: George R.R. Martin)

2: Cut 10%

When you’ve finished your book, revised it, polished it, and made it perfect, go back and cut 10% of it.

I’ll admit, when I first read this advice, I was massively skeptical. If anything, I thought, I needed to add to what I wrote, to flesh out scenes and characters. Well, I did have to flesh out some parts. But my editor told me I had to make my book shorter, too. And you know what? She was right.

Even though I thought the book was as tight as I could make it, when I approached it knowing I had to reduce it in length, I found it wasn’t as tight and efficient as I thought it was. There were redundant words and sentences, even whole scenes that just didn’t have to be there.

So give it a go. When your book is done, cut another 10%.

(Advice from: Stephen King)

3: Every Scene Should Do At Least Two Things

It’s easy to write a scene that does one thing, advances the plot or changes your protagonist or reveals something about your world. But a scene that does only one thing is flat and boring. It’s the kind of handle-turning writing that leaves a reader feeling underwhelmed.

But make that scene do two things – creating an arc for your protagonist and moving the plot on, for example – and make those two things be intertwined and then you’re flying.

(Advice from: Nalo Hopkinson)

4: Coincidences Are Bad

In real life, coincidences happen all the time. Unless you believe that every part of everyone’s life is controlled by some external force and we are but will-free puppets, then coincidences are a part of life.

But not in stories.

If you solve a plot or character problem through a coincidence, your readers will throw your book across the room in frustration, and rightly so.

There is one circumstance where you can have coincidences in stories, though, and that is where they make things worse for your protagonists. The coincidence where they bump into the person who has all the answers? Nope. The coincidence where they bump into an enemy looking to waylay them? Yep. Make things hard for them!

The only coincidences you should have are bad coincidences.

(Advice from: Connie Willis)

5: What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

Whether you’re a plotter or a pantser, ask yourself in every scene, “What’s the most awful or embarrassing thing that can happen to my hero?” And then make it happen.

Humiliate them. Drop them into hell. Make everything go horribly wrong. In each scene, your character should have to deal with the disaster created in the previous scene and then something even worse should happen. Rinse and repeat, and at the end, you’ll have a book. (Obviously, your hero will have to win eventually (unless they don’t), but not until the end.)

The kind of story where your character drifts through easy successes is the story that nobody is interested in.

(Advice from: Stephanie Burgis)

That’s it. The five most useful pieces of writing advice that I have ever received. They might not all work for you, but if you’re wondering why your story doesn’t work quite as well as you were hoping, give them a go. You might be surprised.

Moving On

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We’re about to move house. This isn’t exactly voluntary, because we rent, and our landlady wants to move back into her property, so we have to find somewhere else. First up, we considered moving here:

Blenheim Palace. Photo by Nicholas Jackson, from Flickr.

Unfortunately, it’s just a bit too far to commute to Mr. D’s school, and we’re not about to make him change schools for a puny house like that.

Then we considered moving here:

Hogwarts.

But, apparently, it’s not actually real, as such. So, you know.

In the end, we’re moving to a house that is slightly smaller and slightly dingier than the one we’re in now (boo!) but which at least has a separate office (hooray!). Getting ready to move is turning out to be a bit of nightmare. We’ve been in this house for, ooh, something like 4 1/2 years, and to be honest, we haven’t actually gotten rid of anything in those years. And we arrived with boxes of stuff we hadn’t gotten rid of from previous houses.

So, Steph and I have been sorting through piles and piles of random stuff, trying to get rid of it. (Anyone want an old pram/stroller? A carrycot? A baby car seat?) I can’t bring myself to take stuff that is still in good condition to the tip, but I also can’t figure out how to easily get rid of it. I guess we could put it on ebay, but to be honest, we don’t have time to do that before we move.

We have managed to donate about 20 million items of baby clothes to poor, unsuspecting charity shops by taking them there and running off at high speed before they could say they don’t want them. All I have to do now is wait until Steph is out and then get rid of all of her books while keeping mine. :D

Anyway, we’re moving in about a week’s time, so most of our junk will probably come with us again. If you should have our new address and I’ve forgotten to give it to you, let me know!

Now, back to work. I have a room to sort through and a freelance project due tomorrow.

Oh yeah. In other news, it looks like the publication date for SECRETS OF THE DRAGON TOMB has been pushed back again until September 22, 2015. I do so love the vagaries of publishing.

Credit: Photo of Blenheim Palace, by Nicholas Jackson. Used under a Creative Commons 2.0 License.

Courting Magic Published!

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Well, good morning everyone! (Or, you know, good some other time of day. Whatever.)

Today I’m really excited, because it’s the day that Stephanie Burgis’s Courting Magic is published. This is the fourth book in the Kat, Incorrigible series, which started with Kat, Incorrigible (titled A Most Improper Magick in the U.K.)

Courting Magic takes place five years after the last book, with our heroine, Kat, just about to enter Regency society. But Kat is not just any young lady, she is a magical Guardian and a witch, and she’s been given a mission to uncover an illusionist who is infiltrating parties to steal from the guests.

Courting Magic is a novella, so it’s about half the length of the Kat novels, but it’s still got everything you’d expect from a Kat novel: adventure, romance, magic, and one of the best heroines you’ll read.

This is the blurb:

In Kat Stephenson’s Regency England, magic is even more shocking than a stolen kiss. But now that she’s eighteen, it’s time for wild and magical Kat to be introduced to high society by her older sisters, whether she likes it or not…and to finally have a romance of her own!

Of course, her true love is hopelessly ineligible. But when has Kat ever let Society’s opinion stop her from making up her own mind? Once she realizes she’s found her perfect match, she’s not going to let anything or anyone stand in their way – even if she does have to solve a magical mystery, matchmake for an old friend, and break a few rules along the way!

“Courting Magic” is a sparkling 34,000-word Regency novella set in the world of Kat, Incorrigible.

Courting Magic is available as an ebook pretty much anywhere you can buy ebooks.

Smashwords| Kobo | Amazon USA | Amazon UK | Amazon Canada

You can also buy it at any other international Amazon store.

And it should be available through other stores, such as Barnes and Noble, WHSmith, and iBooks fairly soon.

You can also read the first chapter for free on Stephanie’s website (or, of course, on any of the online bookstores).

By the way, if you don’t have an ereader, you can buy a PDF version from Smashwords and print it out!

This is a fantastic addition to an awesome series, and you should go read it right now!

Art and Anniversary

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So, I have been attempting to upgrade my Photoshop skills. In the old days, that simply involved undoing the top of the skull, removing the Photoshop-cortex and replacing it with a newer model, but you know the way that brains are made these days, what with being impossible to upgrade components yourself.

Anyway, I’ve been reduced to actually having to practice to get better. I know, right?

Most of my Photoshop work I do when I’m designing book covers or websites, but that doesn’t always give you the opportunity to practice the things you’re not good at, so I’m starting to do some ‘photomanipulations’ to practice my techniques.

I’m putting them up on deviantART (along with a few of my covers which I’m particularly fond of), which is an awesome place to see other people’s work and to get stock you can use for making images.

Here’s my first attempt:

There’s a larger version available on deviantART, if you enjoy staring at really big things. Like elephants.

I’m not an artist, and I don’t think I ever will be, but a few years ago, I wouldn’t have had a hope of doing something like this.

Here’s the stock I used to make the image.

In other news, Steph and I have been together 13 years today, which, wow, is a long time, right? Neither of us could have imagined when we met at Clarion West back in 2001 that we’d end up here with our two lovely, amazing little boys and careers as professional writers. It’s been a fantastic 13 years. Thank you, sweetheart.

How the Courting Magic Cover was Made

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The final cover for Courting Magic

Yesterday, Stephanie Burgis revealed the cover for her forthcoming novella, Courting Magic, part of her Kat, Incorrigible series of books (the series is called The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson in the UK).

As I designed the cover, I thought I’d give an overview of how I went about doing it. If you’re not interested in this kind of thing, feel free to skip. I won’t be offended. I promise. (Well, not much. Not completely. Well, I’ll forgive you if you add the novella on Goodreads. Well…)

This isn’t going to be a full tutorial on how to create the cover, but hopefully it will give you an idea of what steps you would need take to design a cover like this.

The original stock photo that we started with is below. (You can click on any of the images in this post to see them at a much larger size.)

The original stock photo

(I’ve put a watermark on the original image because it’s not a free stock image. Hopefully you can still see what we’re working with.)

Whenever you’re embarking on a project like this, where you’re going to do a fair amount to an image, it’s worth spending a little time figuring out exactly what you’re need to do before you start.

So, looking at the original photo:

  • The background is boring. We need something more interesting.
  • The dress is nice, but it doesn’t “pop” out particularly, and we want the image to have impact.
  • The model has blonde hair. Although the books never describe the colour of the heroine’s hair, all of the previous book covers have had her with dark hair, so we’re going to keep that.
  • This is a nice period photo, but the book is a fantasy adventure (with romance and humour) and we need some of the fantasy element in there too.

Okay, so that’s the main things we’re going to need to deal with.

Extracting the figure

The first job is arguably the hardest: to remove the model from the background. I’m working in Photoshop, and the techniques I’m talking about here are all based on Photoshop. Other tools will have similar options, but IMO Photoshop is better and more powerful than most other tools you’re likely to have access to.

A quick aside: Whenever you’re editing an image in Photoshop, you should make all changes on masks and new layers. You should never edit the original image directly, because changes made to the original image can’t be reversed, whereas work done on layers and masks is easy to change or dump if you make a mistake.

So, selecting the figure: Making a selection of the model’s dress and the couch she’s on is easy. You can use the pen tool (most accurate, but more difficult and slower), the magic wand tool, the quick selection tool or even the magnetic lasso tool (not great in this case, but sometimes works). The hair is tougher. You should make a rough selection using one of the techniques above and then use the ‘refine edge’ tool. If you’re having trouble selecting the hair, this is a great tutorial:

When you’re done, create a clipping mask using the selection.

The Wallpaper

The next stage, after selecting the model, was to add a new background. We played around with a variety of backgrounds, but in the end went with something nice and simple that would allow the figure to be the focus of the picture without creating a distraction: some fairly muted wallpaper.

I found this pattern on deviantart, courtesy of user ‘pixelsandicecream’ and inverted it (so it’s a light pattern on a dark background). I found a stock photo of some old paper to use as a texture, put the pattern over the top (with a little bit of blur), then used adjustment layers to change the colour to what I wanted. Finally, I used a large, soft, white brush to create the light halo around the model’s head on the wallpaper. This draws attention to the model, while stopping the wallpaper being too ‘flat’.

The Hair

The hair needed darkening. To get that rich brown with a slightly reddish glow, which is what I was after for the hair, I simply chose a very dark brown and (on a new layer), I painted roughly over her hair (this doesn’t need to be enormously exact, but you shouldn’t stray too much onto the skin. I changed the blending mode to ‘soft light’ and clipped the layer to the extracted model (so that it didn’t spill over onto the background).

This left the back of her hair, where it’s shadowed, looking way too dark. On another layer, beneath the one I’d just painted, I chose a blonde colour from her original hair and painted roughly over the dark part of her hair. Again I set the blend mode to soft light and clipped to the extracted model.

At this stage, I wasn’t 100% happy with the outline of the hair and the dress. I thought they lacked depth (as I said, extracting hair, particularly against a background like the one on this original photo, where it blends into the background, is tough). So, I made copies of the extracted model, with the hair adjustments I’d made, merged the copies into a single layer. Then I blurred this copied layer using a Gaussian blur, and with a soft brush on a layer mask, painted away some of the edges where I didn’t want the blur to happen (the couch) and part of the hair, so it wasn’t over the top. Although this is a subtle effect, it adds volume to the hair and makes it more three dimensional. It also improves the quality of the edges of the hair and the dress.

This is where we’ve got to now:

This is starting to look pretty good, but we still want it to pop more so that it has more impact when someone is scrolling through Smashwords or Amazon, for example. Notice also that I’ve left a pretty big space at the top with very little detail. You want plenty of space for your book title. It’s kind of hard to make the book title look awesome if you’re doing it over the main part of your image, so planning to leave a big space for it is a great idea.

The Dress

The dress was pretty easy. I used a hue / saturation adjustment layer and simply cycled through the hues until I found a colour I liked for the dress, then adjusted the saturation and lightness until I got exactly what I wanted. (If you’re interested, the settings I used are: hue: -90; saturation: +41; lightness: +7. But you can vary these to get pretty much any colour you want for the dress.) I clipped the adjustment layer to the extracted model (because you don’t want it to affect the colour of the wallpaper) and then created a layer mask and painted on it with a soft brush over the parts that I don’t want to change colour: the couch, the face, chest, shoulders and hair, the arms, and the gloves.

Magical Element

Courting Magic is a fantasy novella, and we need to show that. The heroine, Kat, is a ‘Guardian’ with impressive magical powers. But it’s not the kind of novel where people are being blasted by lightning bolts, and magic is heavily frowned upon in good society.

We decided to go for an effect of magic leaking out from beneath her hands, where she’s pressing them against her dress, and then floating up and off. (The magical ‘blobs’ floating from her are a motif in a couple of the book covers, and I wanted to follow that.)

There were two parts to building this up. Firstly, the magic coming from under the hands. This was built up with multiple layers, using soft brushes and blurring. I used a radial blur to give the subtle effect of light leaking in an outward direction.

The second part is the ‘blobs’ of magic drifting out and up. This was simply done with a soft, round brush, placing each blob individually. By varying the size, opacity, and colour of each blob, I quickly built up the effect.

I could have painted it all in one go, if I’d wanted to, by going into ‘Brush Presets’ and adjusting the Shape Dynamics, Scattering, Color Dynamics and Transfer, but I wanted more manual control than that would offer. Still, if you’re in a rush and the details of the effects aren’t quite so important, this is a good way to do it (e.g., if you were painting stars in a sky).

Minor Touch-ups

We are pretty much there, now, with the image. It stands out really nicely from the page, and I think it will grab attention if someone is browsing. But there are a couple of really minor things I wanted to improve. You might not even notice they’ve been done, but they’re worth it anyway, because they don’t take much time.

Skin Blemishes

I went through with the healing brush tool (on a new layer) and removed a few of the distracting skin blemishes. This is something you have to be a little careful with, because if you do too much, the skin starts to look unreal. So you don’t want to remove everything. For example, I didn’t take out the moles or the skin creases, but I did remove a few other minor blemishes. This actually helps with the quality when the image size is reduced.

Eyes

I wanted the eyes to be a little more of a focus in the face. I just used the sharpen tool (on a new layer, of course) with a soft brush and painted over the eyes until they became clearer and sharper, then I reduced the opacity to about 70%, to ensure the effect wasn’t over-done.

Skin Colour

The skin was looking a bit washed out now. It didn’t in the original, but with the darker hair and the vibrant dress, the skin doesn’t quite look so great anymore. I used a curves adjustment layer to add a very small amount of red and to reduce the green and blue minutely. I ensured this only adjusted the skin by using a layer mask.

The image is now finished, and all that’s left is to add the text to it.

Text

Courting Magic is an ebook, and that means that, primarily, it needs to work at very small size, so that when readers are tootling through Amazon (or whatever) looking at books, the cover is still readable.

There are three pieces of text that need to go on the cover: the title (Courting Magic); the sub-title (A Kat, Incorrigible Novella); and the author’s name (Stephanie Burgis).

The three novels in the series have a common style of text for the title. I wanted to echo that, but the fonts used on the novels are too thin and light to be easily readable at small size, so I chose similar fonts that were heavier and easier to read.

The title is the most important bit of text (this isn’t true for ‘name’ authors like Nora Roberts or JK Rowling or Stephen King, but it is for the rest of us), so I put it in that nice clear space at the top and made it pretty big. The subtitle is the least important, so it’s pretty small by comparison. The author name I put on a fairly blank part of the dress at the bottom. This helps balance the cover while framing the important centre of the picture.

I’ve used drop shadows on all the text. This makes it look smoother and makes it stand out more. The author name has a small bevelling (don’t do this at home, folks; bevelling can make text really, really horrible) and an incredibly faint outer glow which darkens the area around the author’s name, to help it show up more.

And that’s it. The cover for Courting Magic.

If you’re making a cover like this, you’ll find you make plenty of wrong decisions and mistakes, but that’s okay. If you do all your work with layers and masks, you’ll find it pretty easy to fix or change. Sometimes you just need to experiment to figure out what is going to work.

This is actually a fairly simple cover. There’s nothing here that is particularly difficult if you know what you’re doing with Photoshop, with the exception of extracting the model’s hair from the background.

Here’s a larger version of the cover for you to look at to see if you can spot more of the details! Enjoy, and don’t forget, the novella will be out in mid-August. You can add it on goodreads here.

Thoughts? Comments? Questions? Feel free to leave them below, or send me a message through my contact form. If you’re interested in my cover or web design services, you can find out more about them on my 50 Seconds North website.

If you got this far, thank you for reading!

Sunshine and book covers

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Well, who’d of thought. It’s turned hot. Really, really hot for Wales. (“Wales: not always raining…”) I suppose the correct response to this would be to dig out some shorts from somewhere, grab a cool yet awesome hat, and head out to enjoy it. Instead, I’ve drawn the curtains. Well, we’re not really built for this kind of weather over here.

Anyway, I’ve been playing about with the openings of two possible books for the last couple of weeks, and today I really nailed one, so I’m going to pursue this idea for a while. Luckily, both of these books are planned as chapter books, at around 10k words, so I should be able to get both done if I can find good openings for both.

In other news, Steph has revealed the cover to her forthcoming novella in the Kat, Incorrigible series, Courting Magic, set about five years after the previous Kat book. You can see the cover reveal over at the YA Book Nerd blog. I designed the cover, and I’m pretty pleased with the way it turned out.

I’ll do a blog entry in the next few days talking about the idea for the cover and what I did to make it, for those who are interested in such things.

That’s all for now. The sunshine is getting too close, and I must hide…

Book Birthday: Stolen Magic, by Stephanie Burgis

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This is just a quick entry to say congratulations to Stephanie Burgis. Today is the day that her third Kat novel, Stolen Magic, is published in paperback in North America!

Here’s the book description:

With just days to go before her sister Angeline’s long-delayed wedding to Frederick Carlyle, the impetuous Kat Stephenson has resigned herself to good behavior. But Kat’s initiation into the magical Order of the Guardians is fast approaching, and trouble seems to follow her everywhere.

First, Kat must contend with the wretched Mrs. Carlyle’s attempts to humiliate her sister; the arrival of the mysterious Marquise de Valmont, who bears suspicious resemblance to Kat’s late mother; and Frederick’s bewitching cousin Jane, who has Charles Stephenson tripping over his feet. But when a menacing boy with powerful magic starts hunting Kat, a dastardly villain tries to kill Angeline, and the Guardians face a magical robbery that could spell the end of their Order, propriety becomes the least of Kat’s concerns.

Can Kat save her sister’s life, the Order of the Guardians, and England itself before it’s too late?

As a lot of you know, I absolutely love these books. They are so full of humour, adventure, and spark that they are completely irresistible. I loved the mayhem of the the first book, Kat, Incorrigible with its sinister noblemen, forbidden witchcraft, and highwaymen, and I adored the second, Renegade Magic, set in the city of Bath, with magic running wild in the Roman baths and treasonous plots, but I think Stephanie has save the absolute best to last when everything comes to a head, and Kat has to deal with her biggest challenges yet.

Here’s the opening of Stolen Magic:

Despite what either of my sisters may say, I actually possess a great deal of common sense. That was why I waited until nearly midnight on the last night of our journey into Devon before I climbed out of my bedroom window.

Luckily, my family was staying on the first floor of the inn, so the rope I’d brought along in case of emergencies was more than long enough. Luckier yet, I knew a useful secret: it’s much easier to sneak out in the middle of the night when you can make yourself invisible.

I landed on the grass with a thud that sent the rope jerking hard against the window’s edge. It was the moment of truth: I held my breath, watching the darkened window and searching for the faintest sign of an outraged older sister awake and ready to use all of her considerable powers – even scandalous witchcraft – to try to force me back to safety.

You can read the first three chapters of Stolen Magic on Stephanie’s website, or you can order the book right now from Indiebound, Amazon, or Barnes and Noble! (What are you waiting for???)

Read First Three Chapters Buy Stolen Magic

A quick note: Stolen Magic, along with the rest of the books in this series, is published by Simon and Schuster. Due to the big conflict between Simon and Schuster and Barnes and Noble last year, which led to Barnes and Noble not stocking Simon and Schuster titles, you are very unlikely to find any of the books in this series on the shelves in Barnes and Noble (with the honorable excpetion of a few branches). You can, however, order it from their website or support your local indie store if you have one!