Balanced Between Worlds: Revealing Rovina Cai’s Illustrations for Nicola Griffith’s Spear

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For Spear, Rovina Cai has created five interior illustrations, all emotionally evocative: immanence, despair, loss, reaching out, and belonging. They complement the text beautifully. I can’t wait for you to experience them. Below, I have written about two of my favourites.

Art by Rovina Cai. Image description: Black-and-white illustration showing a view of earth and sky—the horizon a third of the way up the page. A young woman’s figure is silhouetted against the sky: she looks up into a whirl of wind and leaves and what might be snow. Rising from the wind, we see the shadow of a looming figure on a rearing horse.

At the centre of Spear is the nameless girl who becomes the young woman who in turn becomes the fierce and feared warrior known to legend as Peretur. The essence of my Peretur lies in her unique position, balanced between worlds; my version of Peretur’s story is her journey to the heart of her self, to find her power and to own her strength. It’s not an easy journey, nor is it simple; and to begin with, as for most of us, her sense of her path is inchoate. As she grows from girl to woman she feels change coming—something bigger than just the turn of the seasons—though she has no idea what that change entails:

“The girl… lay awake buffeted in her body by the same winds as the skeins of geese flowing in the river of air above. The autumn echoed and ran with wild magic; her fate was near, she felt it in her blood and bone and heartbeat, in the whirl of wet brown leaves and wingbeat overhead.”

In the book’s first interior illustration Rovina Cai captures that immanence, that embodied sense of fate, using just light and line. The season is there in the curling lines and upswept leaves and possibly snowflakes, and always our eyes are drawn up, to change, to what lies ahead. The future looms large—far larger than the present. Cai uses a simple silhouette backlit by a faint glow to show a young woman experiencing a vision of who she could be. That glow itself is a masterly hint of light from the otherworldly lake that lies ahead. And look at the girl’s body language—face uplifted, arms spread, head slightly back—an easily-understood but hard-to-define mix of surprise, recognition, and exaltation. I love this image.

Art by Rovina Cai. Image description: Black-and-white illustration of a figure kneeling in the shallows of a river, leaning their weight on a sword. In the upper third of the image, the figure is framed by bleak, bare trees. Beneath her, under her knee and barely visible, there is the hint of another submerged figure. Below this is the figure’s reflection in the moving water—darker and sharper and violently spattered and streaked with loose brushstrokes that cascade down the rest of the image.

There’s a lot of joy in Spear, a lot of hope—and daring and delight and discovery. But on the journey to become herself, Peretur faces many trials, and in one she comes very close to death. In this second image we have the opposite of exaltation: exhaustion and something very close to despair. Here Peretur looks down, not up. Again, using nothing but monochrome light and shadow, Cai gives us Peretur’s desperate determination, though this time the proportions of the split image are reversed. The reflection of what has just occurred is much greater, mirroring the monstrous effort, the mud and blood and sweat and tears, underlying her struggle. These are the hunched shoulders of a woman aware of how close she has come to losing everything, a woman for whom the prize is not triumph but simple survival.

Nicola Griffith (she/her) is a dual UK/US citizen living in Seattle. She is the author of award-winning novels including Hild and Ammonite, and her shorter work has appeared in Nature, New Scientist, New York Times, etc. She is the founder and co-host of #CripLit, holds a PhD from Anglia Ruskin University, and enjoys a ferocious bout of wheelchair boxing. She is married to novelist and screenwriter Kelley Eskridge.

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