Day 97: American Gods

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I’ve mentioned my fancy for folklore before, how there is much to be learned about a culture from the old stories they tell. This book pandered directly to that fancy. Seriously, I knew most of the gods who appeared as characters in this as well as their tales, so I could enjoy it all the better.

That aside…

There have been many books written about America and the immigrant experience and this is another one of them, but seen through a whole new lens. It takes the concepts of immigration, of incarnations, the definition of faith, and how stories technically only ever exist so long as they are told. Stop telling a story, give it time, and it will be forgotten. They will have existed in a time long past, but no more in the present, where there is no one to remember that they are real.

And thus are the gods who came to America.

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In the central premise of this, gods and creatures of myth and legend exist because people believe in them. It goes past the human question of whether god is real or if gods are just stories we tell ourselves, and goes to the idea that they exist because they are stories we tell and entities we invoke for luck or blessing or whatever we invoke the gods for. So long as people believe in them and worship them, they exist. Gods can die in the same way that stories can. In this book (and in the current TV series, in which I am only up to episode 7), when people immigrated to America, they brought their gods with them and as the years passed and people changed and acclimated to the world around them, the power of these old gods began to diminish as the prayers to them waned. In their place, new gods have sprung up based on American obsessions, including media, technology, celebrities, etc.

It begins when an ex-convict, Shadow Moon, is released three days early from prison on news that his wife and best friend died in a car crash. Left with nothing in the world, he falls into the service of a Mr. Wednesday, a mysterious smooth-talking conman, who seems to know more than he ever lets on. Shadow and Wednesday travel across America, visiting the latter’s strange colleagues and associates, until Shadow learns that his employer is an incarnation of Odin the All-Father, the Norse god of the gallows, and that he is doing more than just visiting old friends. He is recruiting them for a war, one last stand where the Old Gods will battle the New Gods, and re-establish their place in the hearts of the people who were forgetting them.

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The show has taken a bit of a departure from the books and has fleshed out some characters, added new storylines and the like. It has its pros and cons. I like what they’re doing with the prologues for each episode, going into the cutaway scenes that Gaiman inserted in sections of the book. Like the first Vikings who came to America, that amazing scene on the slave ship with Anansi, Anubis and his scales, the forgotten tale of Nunyunnini, and the tale of Essie McGowan and the leprechaun, which extended through a whole episode. Ian McShane is an excellent Mr. Wednesday. Gillian Anderson is a triumph. I wasn’t sure about Mad Sweeney, but he’s growing on me.

However, I am in two minds about Laura Moon. I’m not fond of Ricky Whittle’s Shadow, though in his defense, book Shadow had so much of himself going on in his head that I’m surprised they were able to translate him to screen at all. People swear wayyy too much. I mean, I’m okay with swearing, but after at least five hundred times, it starts to sounds meaningless. Also, that’s not how blood works. That’s really not how blood works.

I recommend this book to everyone and I’m going to keep an eye on the series, see how it goes. I do hope they bring in Samantha Black Crow sometime. She was a delight.

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A few fun facts:

  • I do not like the title font. Don’t get me started on the title font. Ignore the title font.
  • The characters in the center are Shadow (I went with Ricky’s Shadow for simplicity’s sake), with Laura Moon (his undead wife as I imagined her in the book, not Emily Browning) on the right, and Low-Key Lyesmith (as he is described in the book) on the left.
  • The left side has the New Gods. Left to right are Media (in her Lucy Ricardo form), Technical Boy (as described in the book, not the skinny punk with the attitude problem), and three of the Black Hats, presumably Mr. Town, Mr. Wood, and Mr. Road.
  • The right side has the Old Gods. On the extreme right is Mr. Wednesday (with Huginn and Muninn). In front of him from down up are Anansi (an African trickster god in the form of a spider), Czernobog with his hammer (Slavic god of night and darkness), Eostre (or Easter, Germanic goddess of the dawn), Kali (Hindu Tantric mother goddess), and Anubis (Ancient Egyptian god of the dead and mummification). There are a looooot of other gods in this, but I couldn’t possibly have fit them all. Detailing all of these in itself kinda killed my hands.
  • Oh, and those three stars on the side of the Old Gods? Props to whoever figured out that they’re the Zorya sisters.

Day 96: The Historian

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This is not one of the most well-written books I’ve ever read. Elizabeth Kostova has issues with voice and character and distinguishing one from the other. Everyone sounds the same, from the barely-eighteen nameless narrator to her father to her father’s old professor, all the way to Vlad Tepes himself. (Yes, that Vlad. We’ll get to that in a bit.) This book is also really long. I mean, really really long, especially for a debut novel.

Still, it’s one of those books I would recommend to anyone who has a love for medieval history, travel across Eastern Europe, towering dusty libraries where you can taste the centuries in the air, and the smell of old, yellowing books.

And vampires. The real ones. The original one, in fact, not the kind that sparkle, watch you as you sleep, and for some godforsaken reason, still go to high school.

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I don’t want to go too much into the plot, but it starts with a book. The narrator, who remains unnamed, finds a curious old book in her father’s library marked with an eerie symbol which she recognizes as the Order of the Dragon. Inside it are a bunch of letters addressed to ‘my dear and unfortunate successor’. Discovering these thrusts her in between the folds of history, where her father’s secrets and the truth of her disappeared mother rise to the present. When her father vanishes, leaving behind a set of letters revealing his past, the narrator follows the trail, back and forth through time, while evading the evil that dogs her footsteps, the same evil that pursued her parents years ago. And she must find them before it is too late.

Summaries are clearly not my strong suit.

This is a book of historical fiction, and the history part of it is fascinating. Vlad Tepes, or Vlad Drakulya (meaning ‘son of Dracul’ after his father, Vlad Dracul, which was later simplified by Mr. Bram Stoker), was the three times voivode of Wallachia in the 15th Century. (Wallachia is an area in Romania, south of the Carpathians, close to Transylvania, where Stoker’s Count Dracula is from.) The Historian traces his life from the time he was held hostage alongside his brother, Radu, by Mehmed II, ruler of the Ottomans in 1442. From there, we see his invasion of Wallachia after his father and eldest brother were murdered, and his kingdom was taken by John Hunyadi of Hungary. From there, it is purge after plunder after conquest, featuring his famous mass impalements, his defiance of the Ottomans (and breaking of his vassalhood; is that a word?), and his open massacres in Ottoman territory until Târgovişte. This goes on until his death in battle, where the Ottomans ordered that his body be cut up and the head be taken to Istanbul to present before Mehmed II.

Now this is where it gets interesting.

After his death, Vlad’s body was taken to Bulgaria by a group of monks, where he was supposedly buried in the Monastery of Snagov, a bit north of Bucharest. Excavations done later have revealed no body, only the bones of dead horses. There are theories that he might be located on the grounds of the Comana Monastery in Romania, but what if he wasn’t? What if his body was never found because there is no body to be found? His head was also gone, but what if it was retrieved, perhaps even put back together with the rest of him? What if Vlad Drakulya lived after his supposed death and walked the earth as something different, something not human?

I suppose that’s what might have run through the mind of Mr. Bram Stoker as he spun the tale of his immortal Count.

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A few fun facts:

  • The green dragon being strangled by its own tail that forms the circumference for this piece is the symbol for the Order of the Dragon (with creative liberties taken). This was an order formed in the early 15th Century and composed of selected nobles charged with defending against the enemies of Christianity, which was at the time, the Ottomans. Sort of based off the Crusades. It has been speculated that this could also be a source of the name ‘Drakulya’ for Vlad III, but it’s most likely because of his father.
  • Vlad’s got a bit of the Hapsburg lip in here and though he does have it in his Ambras Castle portrait, that is one genetic defect he may not have had.
  • The only characters who are physically described in this book are Vlad, Helen Rossi, and Turgut Bora, whom I have not painted here. I’ve speculated to an extent with Paul and Bartholomew Rossi based on a few stray mentions and the time periods the story was set in. The narrator is my own design for the most part.
  • Helen’s face and clothing are clearly described in the book (hard, proud, almost mannish features, short dark hair, and stiff black suit). I’ve drawn her and Paul according to the flashback letters from when they were young and searching for Bartholomew Rossi, while being chased by Dracula. This presumably took place in the late 60s at the height of the Cold War (Helen mentions issues with traveling across the Iron Curtain and Paul runs risks in Bulgaria by being American.), so I looked a bit into casual scholarly fashions of the day for Paul.
  • The locations in the background (from left to right) are the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, the monastery of Sveti Georgi in Bulgaria (fictional, so I’ve loosely based this one off the monastery in Rila), and the Abbey of St. Mathieu-des-Pyrenees-Orientales (also fictional; this is based off St. Martin du Canigou).
  • I’ll admit it. Half the reason I took on this story was so that I could write all that history above as well as write the title in that font.

 

Day 95: The Falcon’s Eye

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I wrote a book once called The Falcon’s Eye. It’s a high fantasy coming-of-age novel about a girl who discovers a past she didn’t know she had, finds herself in a world that she fought all her life to avoid, and faces difficult choices where her decision could alter the fate of an entire realm, and she must choose between what is right and what is easy.

(Yes, I’m being vague on purpose. Where’s the fun otherwise?)

The official back cover blurb, however is below.

The queen of Aundour is assassinated. The Falcon’s Eye, a talisman of great power, is sealed within the infant heir to the throne, who is exiled for her own safety.

Sixteen years later, land pirate Ava is rescued from execution by a stranger who reveals that she’s being hunted for more than her crimes. Aundour’s sworn enemy seeks the amulet hidden beneath her birthmark, and the only place where she will be safe is with her real father, the king who sent her away.

A dormant power now awakens within her, a destructive force too strong for an untrained mind to handle. But Ava never asked for magic, wealth, or even a father. All she wants is to escape the lords and liars trying to control her. When the web of evil closes in, and Aundour’s fate hangs by a thread, Ava must make a choice: her need for freedom, or the kingdom doomed to fall without her?

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I first started writing this as a pet project when I was fifteen, and it grew and grew along with me until I published it three years ago. That was seven years of immersion in a vast world with a complex history, for which there were maps drawn, family trees marked up, and piles of research done.

It’s been a while since I returned to Ava’s story and her world, since I’ve been traversing other fictional ones of my making, but I definitely will come back and learn more about what happens with her after the end of The Falcon’s Eye.

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A few fun facts:

  • I’ve sketched Ava a thousand times over while testing character designs, but frankly, this is the first time I’m seeing her in color.
  • Ava is a Firechild and when she puts her mind to it, the flames that come from her tend to be white, but she works just as well with regular ones.
  • It’s one thing to design a castle to write, and quite another to draw it out. I’ve described the castle in Veïlas from the outside and inside, with its rooms, courtyards, open areas, and passageways, and it was a delight to paint.I would have detailed it a lot more, but my tiny brush stopped cooperating and I had to ice my hand, so I only got this much out of it. Still, this was one of the places where a degree in architecture came in handy.
  • There’s a wolf. The wolf is a character and was a delight to write. Note that he’s not always a wolf.
  • My favorite characters to write were Garon (“Wayfarer, my dear. New shore, new name. You of all people should understand that.”), who is the bard in the purple cap and cape, and Arne Rannhain, the noble knight in white who is stiff-backed, judgmental as hell, and delightfully complex.
  • There are a lot more characters in this and I would have loved to include a few more, but I do only have so much space and not nearly enough time.

Day 94: Vasilisa the Beautiful

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So, we’ve done a collection (Scheherazade and One Thousand and One Nights), a childhood favorite (Anne of Green Gables), and an epic which was also a dance drama (Meghaduta). Now, let’s do a folktale!

There is much to be learned about a culture through their folklore, and I’ve read a good many of a number of origins, including Persian, Native American, West African, Mesoamerican, Aborigine, German, Assyrian, Egyptian, and Slavic, to name a few. For this, I picked a Russian story that I’ve read a thousand times over. It features Baba Yaga, a witch-like crone who features in a number of Slavic and Germanic tales, both as foe and friend. The general crone archetype in folktales could work both ways. They’re either horrifically ugly witches who will eat you for supper or they’re grandmotherly old ladies who will give you a blessing if you do them a good turn. Baba Yaga has been both, and is known by a number of names in different countries and cultures. These (could) include Ježibaba of the western Slavic people, Baba Roga in Croatia and Bosnia (where she’s a scary old lady), the Bulgarian Gorska Majka, Muma Padurii of Romania, Mother Holle of Northern Germany, or Baba Korizma of Serbia. She has appeared in a number of well-known Russian folktales, the most famous of which are this one and that of Ivan and the Firebird.

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Anyway, Vasilisa was the beautiful daughter of a Russian merchant, whose wife died when she was around eight years old. On her deathbed, the mother gave Vasilisa a little wooden doll and told her that if she was ever sad or in need of help, to give the doll a little food and some water, and it would help her. So, after a time, the merchant remarried and the new wife was a spiteful woman with two daughters of her own, and naturally – because this is a traditional folktale with archetypal characters – the stepmother and stepsisters were ugly and mean and hated Vasilisa, who was beautiful and good and kind. Thus, she made the girl do all the work in the house and the fields, and never let her marry. Every time Vasilisa was sad, she gave the doll a little food and water, and it comforted her.

So, one day, the merchant had to take off on a long journey. During this time, the stepmother hatched a plot to get rid of Vasilisa for good. She sold the house and moved her and the girls to a little hut near the edge of the woods. One day, she gave each of the girls a job to do and put out all the candles except one. When one of the stepsisters surreptitiously blew out the candle, they sent Vasilisa into the woods, where the fearsome Baba Yaga lived, and told her to get some light from her for them. On the doll’s quiet advice, she went.

As Vasilisa walked through the woods, she came upon three riders (one at a time, not all at once). One came as dawn was breaking, dressed completely in white and astride a white horse. The second came soon after, attired in red upon a red horse. It was nearly nighttime when Vasilisa reached Baba Yaga’s house on giant chicken legs behind a fence of human bones, and a rider in all black upon a black horse passed by her. Baba Yaga arrived in her flying mortar and pestle, and told Vasilisa that she has to work for the light she wants, and if she doesn’t perform, she’ll be eaten. Not much of a choice there.

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So, Vasilisa was put to work. She had to clean the house, clean the yard, do the laundry, cook the food. She also had to separate chaff from grain, poppy seeds from soil, and squeeze oil from the corn kernels. Vasilisa gave the doll a little food and water, and the doll told her to rest before finishing up the work for her. When Baba Yaga returned, she could find nothing to complain about and no excuse to eat Vasilisa. All the work was done, except for the squeezing oil from the corn. Baba Yaga clicked her fingers and three disembodied hands appeared to do the work. She then asked Vasilisa if she had any questions.

Vasilisa asked Baba Yaga about the three riders, and Baba Yaga explained that they were Day (white rider), the Sun (red), and Night (black). She thought to ask about the disembodied hands, but the doll trembled in her pocket and Vasilisa decided not to. Baba Yaga then asked Vasilisa how she got all that work done. It should have been impossible. Vasilisa replied that it was by the grace of her mother’s blessing, and Baba Yaga went nuts. She wanted none of that blessing business in her house, so she threw Vasilisa out and sent her away with the light she came for, in the form of a skull with glowing eyes.

When Vasilisa brought the light back to her stepmother and stepsisters, who had been bathed in unforgiving darkness the whole time, the skull’s eyes glowed bright, so bright that it blinded them all. In other versions, it burned them to ash. You can pick which one you like better. Anyway, they weren’t going to be hurting Vasilisa anymore and she buried the skull so that it wouldn’t hurt anyone else. After that, she went to the capital where she became an assistant to a clothmaker, stitched beautiful shirts which found their way to the czar, who was so enamored by them that he found Vasilisa, fell in love with her, and married her.

(Somehow, all Russian stories seem to involve a wedding with a czar. Or a prince who becomes a czar.)

The End.

A few fun facts:

  • The entire aesthetic and design of this piece was based off the illustrations of Ivan Biblin, a 20th Century Russian illustrator and stage designer. Most of his works were inspired by Slavic folklore and his illustrations are the most well-known when it comes to the stories.
  • I haven’t mentioned it before, but all of these are done on A4 300 GSM Montval watercolor paper and the circles are 18cm in diameter.
  • The title calligraphy was borrowed from the font Voyage.

 

Day 93: Meghaduta

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I studied the Sanskrit language in school. It was a pretty easy language with a straightforward grammar system and vocabulary that one can make quick parallels with. Also, the tests were easy to score marks on, so I took it on as a second language (in most Indian schools, it’s compulsory to be at least trilingual.) I ended up taking a personal interest in the language and took to its literature, most of which is in the poetic format. Among them, Kalidasa’s works were my favorite. He used simple meters, intense descriptions, and lovely – almost purple – imagery mostly derived from nature. He was a great inspiration for many poets who came after him, including Goethe, who is famous for Faust. Kalidasa has written four famous poetic epics, and one among them is Meghaduta.

Meghaduta means ‘cloud messenger’. In this story, a yaksha is living in exile as a punishment for having neglected his duties to Kubera, the god of wealth. He laments being separated from his beloved wife, who is waiting for him in their home at Alaka, up in the Himalayas. A passing cloud hears him and agrees to take a message to her. The rest of the story is that message, where the yaksha speaks of his love for his wife as well all the sights that the cloud will see on its journey from his place of exile in Central India all the way to Alaka.

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Now, I’ve never actually read the whole of Meghaduta, though I have studied excerpts from it. This story, however, is particularly close to my heart because I once attended a dance drama performance of it. I’m a fan of bharatnatyam and delight in dance dramas. I have the good fortune of living close to a very famous dance school as well, so I manage to attend at least a few performances every year. None had ever affected me as much as this one did.

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The dance drama was choreographed by Shijith Nambiar and Parvathy Menon, danced by them and students of their school of dance, and music arranged by Bombay Jayashri. It was done in alliance with Aim for Seva, a service organization with a focus on education and healthcare for rural children. I was lucky enough to have a second row seat for their performance, right in the middle. Shijith Nambiar played the cloud, and in this interpretation, he took a creative departure from the original, and embodied the cloud as more than just a messenger. In this, not only did he carry the yaksha‘s words, he carried his soul as well, and felt the pangs of separation and heartache and wonder at the world as much as he did. Tears, I tell you. That never happens, but tears, and it was seared into my memory.

A few fun facts:

  • The cloud in this may or may not bear a slight resemblance to the dancer Shijith Nambiar, who played the cloud in the dance drama.
  • In the dance drama, a gauzy white scarf is used as an allegorical prop to signify the yaksha‘s message, soul, and feelings. The cloud takes this from him in the beginning, wears it all through his journey, and delivers it to the yakshi at the end. In the illustration, it’s only a scarf, but also doubles as a reference.
  • I tried to base the yakshi on Parvathy Menon, though it wasn’t perfect and she didn’t actually play the yakshi in the performance I attended.
  • Despite the yakshi‘s location being Alaka which is in the Himalayas (yes, that is Mount Kailash in the background), the designs of her balcony are more Rajasthani.
  • The clothing color schemes for the yaksha and yakshi are matched.

 

Day 92: Anne of Green Gables

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Anne Shirley was one of my closest companions growing up, and probably the first book series I ever got my hands on. I started reading L.M. Montgomery’s books when I was about seven or eight and formed an instant connection with young Anne, who was imaginative and whimsical and had her own personal way of seeing the world. In a sort of way, I wanted to be her, considering that she was far more extroverted than I was (am, rather.) Compared to Anne, I was a lot quieter, a bit shy, with not as many friends, but she and I had the same eyes with which we saw the world, similar minds that conjured things and liked to find something beautiful in the everyday, though she was more dramatic than I was.

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Set predominantly in the fictional town of Avonlea on Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, Anne was a sprightly, redheaded orphan with a wild imagination adopted by a middle-aged pair of siblings who wanted a boy. The story goes about how she won over them as well as the rest of the town with the sheer force of her personality, without ever changing herself if not for the better. She forms close friendships, strong rivalries, and eventually finds love and family.

Anne was one of those turn-of-the-century feminist characters in popular literature, and was wonderfully well-written. Not only was she strong, outspoken, individualistic, ambitious, intelligent, and educated, she was also dramatic, a bit vain, and occasionally lived more in her fantasy than her reality. (Gilbert Blythe got the wrong end of that stick for a long time.)  In other words, she wasn’t perfect. She had flaws and failings, and through the series, we get to watch her grow the same way we would ourselves. She formed a number of beautiful, nuanced friendships with other girls, the best of them being with Diana Barry, who is standing next to Anne here. Her romance with Gilbert Blythe (who was possibly the first great fictional love of my life) grew from a rivalry between two intelligent, stubborn people, to a strong friendship with mutual respect, to love.

In a time when women are often being written as flawless unrelatable goddesses who are more cardboard cutouts than nuanced people, all for the sake of the ‘strong female character’, Anne Shirley is an example to remember.

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A good number of my childhood friends were of the fictional sort, and I’m forever glad that she was among them. And that is why I stoutly refuse to watch the new Netflix series. I saw some clips from that, and they have ruined everything about this book and this character, and have completely missed the point of her. Dishonor, I say! Dishonor on you, dishonor on your family, dishonor on your cow!

A few fun facts:

  • Yes, the clothes are all based off the costumes from the 1985 miniseries.
  • Behold the carrots pigtails, before the green hair incident that turned it a “true auburn”.
  • The faces, however, are a bit more based on how I personally visualized the characters. I mean, I glanced at Megan Follows, Jonathon Crombie, Schuyler Grant, Amybeth McNulty, and Dalila Bela, but I didn’t really depend on them too much.
  • How obvious is my adoration for Gilbert Blythe in this?
  • The reference image for the Green Gables house in the background (with tiny Marilla and Matthew) is the actual 19th Century farm in Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. In 1985, it was declared a National Historic Site.

 

Day 91: Scheherazade

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And the countdown begins.

For the last ten days, I’ve picked ten stories and am illustrating them in circular windows. I can tell you, choosing them was hell and painting these are going to be a wonderful nightmare. Wonderful because I love doing this, and nightmare because it is driving me batshit crazy. I spent about seven hours on this one, around five of which were spent on itsy-bitsy details with the paper about three inches from my face, but worth it. So worth it.

Anyhoo, that aside, I figured the best way to begin a series of story windows is with a tale of a famed storyteller. Schereherazade was the narrator of the famous One Thousand and One Nights. Her father was the grand vizier to King Shahrayar, whose wife had been unfaithful to him. Thus, the king resolved to marry a new virgin everyday and behead the previous day’s wife so that she could never be unfaithful. I know, completely insane. Anyway, nearly a thousand young women died until the turn of the vizier’s daughter came.

Now, the vizier was terrified for his daughter, but she was a clever and resourceful woman. She hatched a plan with her younger sister, Dunyazade, and once she had married the king and was in his chambers, she asked if she might ask for a final wish and bid farewell to her sister. The king agreed, the sisters met, and Dunyazade begged Scheherazade for one final story.

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Scheherazade, who was well-read in history, folklore, poetry, and scholarly works, began telling Dunyazade a story. The hours of night passed and both the king and Dunyazade listened with rapt attention. Scheherazade always stopped in the middle though, saying that dawn was breaking and it was time for her to die. The king, wanting to know how the story ended, decided to spare her life for another day. The next night, Scheherazade finished that story and began another one, and on and on for a thousand and one nights. These stories included the well-known ones of Aladdin and his magic lamp, the adventures of Sinbad, and Ali Baba and the forty thieves, the three of which are illustrated here.

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Anyway, at the end of the thousand and one nights, the king realized that he had fallen in love with Scheherazade, and made her his queen. I notice they gloss over the fact that he killed over a thousand innocent virgins before meeting Scheherazade and being won over by stories, but it’s a folktale set in a completely different day and age, so let’s move along.

This story has been adapted a number of times, in books, plays, movies, even a ballet.

A few fun facts:

  • The screen pattern on the title and the window are made to match. One is meant to be a window, the other a tile pattern.
  • Scheherazade’s and Dunyazade’s jewelry is based off Afghan traditional styles rather than Persian. I just really like Afghan jewelry.
  • Sinbad’s ship is based off the one in Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas by Dreamworks Animation. I think that movie is terribly underrated.
  • Yes, Aladdin is based off the design in Disney, but I’ve made him younger. In the original story, he was just a boy when he found the lamp. It was only after he used the genie to make himself and his mother wealthy merchants did he come across the princess Badroulbadour.