For the Book View Café reissue of A Star Shall Fall, third of the four volumes of the Onyx Court sequence, Marie Brennan hoped for a cover that conveyed three essential elements. The first and most basic bit was branding. The book is a fantasy, and so the cover needed to hint at that genre, if not convey it outright. Second, if at all possible the cover needed to establish that the geographical setting was London, England. The third point was also a matter of setting, not of where but of when. A Star Shall Fall takes place at the end of the 1750s, coinciding with the return of Halley’s Comet.

The matter of clueing in a potential reader to the point-in-time aspect was particularly important to Marie. Bringing specific eras to life with a fidelity of historical detail is one of her strengths as a writer, and certainly the challenge of doing so is one of her muses. To sidestep that quality just would not do. As a cover designer I considered myself fortunate that the appearance of the comet was so plot-forward. Right away it gave me a specific visual element to search for.

My first challenge was to avoid a literal depiction of Halley’s. The celestial object itself didn’t ever do much visually except to persist for a fraction of a year as a smudge of luminescence in the sky. I wanted something with more drama than that. The real Halley’s didn’t slam into the Earth, but the concern among the population in 1759 was that it might. The terror was palpable. It was the stuff of outcries and exaggeration. So to my mind, it wasn’t necessary to adhere to strict reality, but instead I felt myself free to depict how people at the time felt about what was happening, or feared what might happen. My search led me to this:

I didn’t need the ocean and breaking-wave portion, but the fireballs-coming-down element had plenty of potential. Marie agreed. With that, the top half of the cover was underway. The next stage was obvious, which was to place that fireballs panorama above a nighttime silhouette of London.

Obvious, yes. Possible? I wasn’t sure.

Stock-photo views of London are widely available. The number of choices is staggeringly high. Unfortunately, the same is not to be said of views of London from the late 1750s. There was no photography in that era. Nor could I resort to the old trick of using an image from a later era when photography was available, because the London of more modern times is quite different than the London as experienced to city denizens back then. They never had the opportunity to gaze upon Big Ben, for example. The one happy exception is St. Paul’s Cathedral, a core London landmark up on the highest point of the whole city. The edifice was completed in 1710. It was a no-brainer that whatever view of London filled the bottom portion of the A Star Shall Fall cover, it would prominently feature St. Paul’s.

What I had available to choose from were paintings. And there weren’t many of those, because the majority were non-starters for reasons including but not limited to amateurish rendering, damage incurred over the decades and centuries since being painted, or unsuitability due to the style in which the artist chose to work. Painters back then, as now, succumbed to fashion and/or they pursued certain agendas and while they and their patrons might have been pleased with the result, I was not. What I wanted was a view of the city that not only incorporated St. Paul’s Cathedral, but was done in a realistic and detailed manner and in a mode that could be considered more-or-less objective.

One of the only viable candidates was the painting you see just below. It is a famous work by Giovanni Antonio Canal (1697-1768), better known as Canaletto. Though he was from Venice and spent the greater portion of his life in Italy, he was based in London from the mid-1740s to the mid-1750s. During that time he painted many views that survive now as faithful representations of the city as it looked in the years just prior to the reappearance of the comet.

You see the problem, right? It’s a daytime view. Not that I blame Canaletto. After all, if a fellow sets out to paint a landscape, he usually chooses to capture his subject as it looks in daylight. Otherwise the main color he’d have to apply to the canvas would be black.

To this point in my cover-design vocation, I had not transformed a well-lit scene into a dark, silhouette-imbued variation. I won’t go into the details of what I had to do. I’ll treat that as a trade secret. You can see the result at the top and the bottom of this blog entry.

The remaining element was to convey the genre. I soon thought of a dragon. In the Onyx Court books, there is a dragon of sorts. I don’t mean a leathery-winged, fire-spouting physical specimen. The dragon Marie wrote of manifests in various ways, including AS the comet at one point. And so while it would not have been appropriate to show a full-on view of the stereotypical creature, it was more than fair game to incorporate a dragon in the form of a presence or as a symbol.

I found this image at Dreamstime:

Frankly, as dragons go, this is a crude rendering, more suitable to role-playing-game packaging than something with which to adorn a Real Live Book. But it was sufficient. I just needed enough to establish the basis of a dragon silhouette. The final version is far more my own rendering than what came from the source art. But it helped to have the starting point.

In the end, after somewhat more hours of labor than some covers I’ve done, this was the final result:

a star shall fall cover

(The River Thames painting by Canaletto is in the public domain. The comet storm stock art is copyright by I_gOrZh/Depositphotos. The flaming dragon artwork is copyright by Zeferli/Dreamstime. Used by agreement. Further use requires the permission of the rights holders.)

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