Earlier this week, N.K. Jemisin revealed the cover and synopsis for her next novel, The Fifth Season. Since first debuting as a novelist with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Jemisin has been blessed with some of the most inspired art direction in current fantasy. Lauren Panepinto, Art Director at Orbit Books, is responsible for Jemisin’s covers, so I gathered her up and we discussed The Fifth Season and the process of evolving an author’s brand as they mature and move from series-to-series.
“Working on N. K. Jemisin books are the best kind of challenge for me,” said Panepinto. Jemisin’s books are often praised for their strong worldbuilding, approach to magic and uniquely drawn characters, which turns out to be both something of a curse and a blessing for an art director. But Panepinto is never one to back down from challenges. “Really strong, fleshed out characters inhabiting intricately thought-out worlds means there’s always a wealth of material to draw from for the covers,” she explained.
While some authors stay within their most popular worlds, making a job of branding that world, or those characters that fans love, Jemisin creates new worlds, new magic systems, new histories and cultures, every couple of years as she wraps up one series and moves onto the next. This presents and interesting canvas for an art director, who can recreate or evolve the author’s ‘look’ to keep up with trends, without sacrificing familiarity with entrenched fans. “However, as we’ve gone from series to series, I’ve found myself being drawn to more and more abstract ways to illustrate the world of series,” she said.
“The cover for The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (illustration by Cliff Nielsen) was one of the first covers I worked on for Orbit, and I still love it, but in that series you’re seeing a lot more of the story literally illustrated than in The Killing Moon (illustration by Marc Yankus). I’ve been drawn more to evoking a feel and tone, rather than a specific scene from the story, and leaving more to the reader’s imagination.”
One particular challenge with The Fifth Season, which Panepinto wasn’t faced with during the design process for Jemisin’s earlier novels, was that the manuscript wasn’t finished by the time she had to start conceptualizing and designing. “I got to steal Nora in person one day when she was in the office,” Panepinto said. “We just talked about what she was creating in a stream of consciousness way. I do love hearing an author explain their thought process.”
“I don’t want to give anything away, but the story is all about earth and stone, and cycles of destruction. I wanted to give the feel of a civilization destroyed, yet have it overall feel like decaying stone, very organic. Let’s just say I really burned myself out looking at infinite images of ruins. Good think I’m such a history nerd. I wanted to create an image that hinted at civilization (without feeling too much like a civilization we already know from history), but was clearly experiencing for some kind of apocalyptic event.”
The Fifth Season is set for release in August, 2014 from Orbit Books.