I’m thrilled to share the story behind the cover and illustrations for The Planet Thieves, the first in a new middle grade SF series from author Dan Krokos.
The novel focuses on 13 year old Mason Stark, who spends his summers as a cadet in the Earth Space Command and is forced to take charge when the adults on his crew are taken hostage by the alien Tremist.
Obviously covers are important, but covers for first-in-series books are doubly so. You’re setting the tone, art style, and treatment for the rest of the series. Let’s be honest, books are judged by their covers. Dan, his agent and I (his editor) discussed our ideas for the cover extensively, tweaking our concept before sending it on to art. Here’s an excerpt from Dan’s initial thoughts, exactly as they appeared on our memo:
I’d love to do something that shows Mason, from behind looking out at a space battle from the window of his spaceship.
I completely agreed, and we fleshed out that idea in our cover concept.
Fortunately for us, our art director, Seth Lerner, was able to book the talented Greg Call to design the cover. He’s also worked on such blockbusters as the Peter and the Starcatchers series.
Here’s the first sketch we received:
Along with a sketch for the spaceships:
So far, so good right? I love the in-action position of the figure, like he is almost gasping with horror at the battle, and about to run off and save the world.
Next we received an updated sketch:
Look at those ships! A lot of action going on there, right?
We played around with the type treatment while waiting for the final art. Fixed a few things, moved this around.
And when the final art came in, we put it all together, to end up with this:
Spoiler alert—Mason is wearing gloves that he’s stolen from his Tremist enemy, gloves that hide pretty much the coolest weapon ever.
[Dan] The cover is really more than I could’ve hoped for. I figured Mason would be looking out a window at some lasers and stuff, but the cover manages to show so much in one image. In particular, I love that we get an image of the bridge right from the start, complete with scrolling combat text on the dome. And we also get a visual on the Tremist Hawk, a ship that plays a big part throughout the book.
Plus, as Whitney said, those gloves….
The art doesn’t stop there, though. Since this is such a visual, action-packed novel, we felt that illustrations would help our middle grade readers envision what is occurring in each scene. For these, we were fortunate enough to work with the talented Antonio Javier Caparo, who has worked on such titles as Beyonders and The Magic Thief.
Here are two examples of illustrations, along with an excerpt from the text:
[Except from The Planet Thieves]
The Tremist wizard seemed to slow under his own power, drifting down, righting himself in the air so he came feet first. He was cloaked in a billowing black robe that flowed away from his body, expanding like wings. The mask was typical Tremist, but instead of a mirror, his blank oval face seemed to throb with violet light. Looking directly into the mask burned Mason to his core. He was no longer Captain of the SS Egypt; he was just another cadet out of his league.
The Rhadgast wore purple gloves up to its elbows. Gloves that crackled with electricity. Bright tendrils of it crawled up and down the sleeves. As the Rhadgast flowed down in a controlled descent, a sudden burst of light filled the room, emanating from the gloves.
[Dan] This is probably my favorite of the 8 images. In the “gravity-free bay”, Mason and his fellow cadets come across a Rhadgast, a kind of Tremist that is only supposed to exist in legend. I asked myself, “What would a space wizard look like?” and the Rhadgast was my answer.
Like the cover, this image took my imagination to the next level. The Rhadgast isn’t necessarily bigger than a man, but I love how he’s portrayed here as larger than life, looming over Mason. The robes and gloves really capture the ethereal quality I was looking for.
And now for the final art—much the same, just fleshed out a bit.
And the second illustration example:
[Excerpt from The Planet Thieves]
Right in the center of the screen, two Tremist crouched in their magnificent armor. It resembled plate, like knights in ancient Europe once wore, but this plate was not dull hammered metal—the surface of the Tremist armor shone weirdly, like oil, shifting colors depending on the angle. Sometime it had a near-mirror finish, but most often it shifted between purple and black. The Tremist were as tall and wide as men, with arms and legs like men, with helms that covered their whole heads. The helms were the worst part—the face was a perfect oval, the shape a normal face would be, but it was a pristine mirror, so to look at a Tremist head on, it was said, you saw yourself. The last thing you saw was the terror on your face. A perfect image of your head, floating atop a Tremist body.
[Dan] It’s easy to describe the Tremist armor as resembling plate worn by ancient knights, but to actually see it is a different story. I really wanted a balance between ancient and futuristic, and I think that idea is captured perfectly here. Here they’re moving through the SS Egypt as they systematically capture or kill the crew.
And the final art for this one as well:
There are 8 illustrations scattered throughout the action-packed 253 pages of the novel. I love the way art and prose work together, and think it makes for a pretty darn beautiful book!
[Dan] I was a reluctant reader as a kid, and I think in some ways I’m even more reluctant today. It’s something I struggle with. I’m very visually driven, so to have these images in my book is an incredible gift. Pictures drew me in as a kid, and still do.
I can’t quite express the feeling of seeing an artist take some words you made up and transform them into beautiful images that feel alive. I am so grateful to Greg Call, Antonio Javier Caparo, and the whole art team at Tor. Thank you.
And now that you’ve all seen the cover, and sample illustrations, here’s a quick description of The Planet Thieves, for our curious readers:
Two weeks ago, thirteen-year-old Mason Stark and seventeen of his fellow cadets from the Academy for Earth Space Command boarded the SS Egypt. The trip was supposed to be a short routine voyage to log their required spacetime for summer quarter.
But routine goes out the airlock when they’re attacked by the Tremist, an alien race who have been at war with humanity for the last sixty years.
With the captain and crew dead, injured, or taken prisoner, Mason and the cadets are all that’s left to warn the ESC. And soon they find out exactly why the Tremist chose this ship to attack: the Egypt is carrying a weapon that could change the war forever.
Now Mason will have to lead the cadets in a daring assault to take back the ship, rescue the survivors, and recover the weapon. Before there isn’t a war left to fight.
Look for The Planet Thieves on shelves May 21st!