I was browsing my to-read pile and ended up going for the new Kristell Ink anthology Fight Like a Girl, in part for the glorious cover. That got me thinking about cover art. Now, I’m not hugely influenced by book covers. I tend to go by synopsis and sample pages rather than looks. But I can’t deny that when a book sounds interesting AND has a gorgeous cover, it’s a huge bonus. I’ll pick up my favorites again and again, just to feast my eyes on the artwork and maybe reread a page or two.
I began pulling out books from my shelves that really appealed to me for one reason or another. Looking through the pile on my table, I realized that the covers seemed to fall into four distinct camps. Now, I’m no expert on cover art, or art at all for that matter. So feel free to disagree in the comments and add your own categories!
Category 1: The ‘teaser trailer’ cover.
This type of cover is big in children’s fiction, and indeed my first ever cover love was C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, beautifully illustrated by Pauline Baynes (1970’s edition). The artwork gives us a sneak peek at the story, showing us a scene or a setting, and providing a taste of things to come.
Examples for this category include the John Rocco covers for Rick Riordan’s books. Rocco created all the US covers for Riordan’s middle grade and YA work, and in my opinion pulls off the ‘teaser trailer’ aspect very well, giving us enough of a hint at what will happen to get us interested.
Of course, these are covers aimed at younger readers. However, the Michael Whelan art for Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive does much the same for an older target audience. Look at the cover for The Way of Kings, below. Can’t you just picture the soaring music of the trailer as the camera pulls out to sweep the landscape? Don’t you just want to know more, immediately?
Sometimes a ‘teaser trailer’ cover doesn’t even need human figures. The Tim Byrne cover art for the Rojan Dizon series by Francis Knight is a particularly effective example. Once again, can’t you just imagine the camera swooping in towards the streets in this cover for Knight’s Fantasy Noir novel Last to Rise?
Category 2: The ‘character hook’ cover.
This is probably one of the most prevalent cover types in fantasy. Hooded rogues, brooding kings, towering warriors. There’s a subtype for each and every subgenre. Some can be a little cliché, others find a way to make an impression. The difference between this category and the first? While the ‘teaser trailer’ cover tries to hook us with a promise of a story, the character cover centers it all on the main protagonist(s). It wants us to immediately bond with them, anchoring our curiosity on the figure the covers portray and encouraging us to discover their story.
The cover for Swords and Scoundrels by Julia Knight is pretty typical of the category, although we have two characters in this case, and not the more usual one. Illustrated by Gene Mollica and designed by Wendy Chan, what sets a cover of this sort above others is the beautiful artwork. The characters must be appealing enough that we say, “Why yes, I will enter your domain and hear your story, dear swashbuckling people on the cover!” It’s a simple set-up, but it works.
Teresa Edgerton’s Mask and Dagger duology does something a little different. In both Goblin Moon and Hobgoblin Night, Sarah J. Swainger’s cover art opts for a dark outline, reminiscent of the silhouette portraits popular in the mid-to-late 18th century, a particularly fitting nod to Edgerton’s Victorian-inspired world. The effect is clean, crisp, but still remains within the domain of ‘character hook’ covers.
A modern take on the theme was used effectively in the US covers for Myke Cole’s new military fantasy trilogy. Illustrated by Larry Rostant and designed by Diana Kolsky, the covers for Gemini Cell and Javelin Rain pulse with energy. The enigmatic character portrayal and the vibrancy of the artwork draw us in and promises a thrilling ride.
Category 3: The ‘one Ring to bind them’ cover.
In yet another version of the ‘teaser trailer’ cover, this category takes an inanimate object and uses it as a story hook. A mysterious symbol might promise a tale of magic. A sword, the allure of violent and heroic deeds. You get the idea. Personally, I think the ‘one Ring’ covers can be particularly effective for a series, adding a new element for each book. This form of cover art treads the line between teaser hook and my last category, the ‘graphic glory’ cover.
The Larry Rostant/David Stevenson covers for George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire are a good example. Simple, clean, and to the point, they each prominently feature one item relating to events in the book, using background color as an important tool to give each book a separate identity within the common thread. The gloriously red art for A Feast for Crows, for instance, is repeated on the spine, a clever ploy for on-shelf prettiness.
The covers for the Seven Realms series by Cinda Williams Chima go a step further. The original four books, as well as the newly released Flamecaster, first in a new series set many years later, join together ‘significant object’ with ‘teaser trailer’ backgrounds. Sneaky! And also very effective. Now that you’ve seen it, aren’t you just dying to know more about the mysterious amulet thing on the cover? And how does it fit in with the city behind? Art by Sasha Vinogradova and design by Erin Fitzsimmons.
The original UK cover for Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold takes the ‘one Ring’ concept and runs with it, far, and fast, and wide. We have a map! And a sword! There are coins, and blood splatters! It took a whole team to create, according to Joe’s blog. It’s pretty amazing, to tell the truth, and I really wish it were the cover of the version on my Kindle. It’s not, unfortunately, so I had to resort to online drooling. But really, there are so many different objects on this cover that it’s a whole micro-story in itself. A sort of connect-the-dots intro to the story inside.
Category 4: The ‘graphic glory’ cover.
This category of book cover is deliciously graphic, with a lean, clean beauty of a concept. It’s less about hooking the reader with the promise of a story, and more about wowing them with stunning artwork that pretty much stands alone without the novel inside. If I were to frame and display any of the books in my personal library, it would probably be the ones with this sort of cover.
I originally bought A Darker Shade of Magic, by V.E. Schwab, in e-version. But I eventually went out and bought a physical copy, too. I wanted it on my shelf; I needed it on my shelf. Although this cover does refer to the novel, the appeal isn’t in the story hook but in the sheer prettiness of Will Staehle’s artwork.
Tom Pollock’s Skyscraper Throne trilogy is another personal favorite, both in terms of covers and content. The UK cover art by Ghost is discreet, minimalist, and lovely. Even if I had no idea what was inside The City’s Son and its sequels, I’d probably peek just because I like the cover so much.
To finish where I started, Kristell Ink’s Fight Like a Girl anthology fits neatly into the ‘graphic glory’ category. The paper doll sweetness of Sarah Anne Langton’s cover art is too cute for words, and fits the book concept admirably: after all, in an anthology each author mounts their own unique character, and has their own distinct take on the theme. And you can dive deeper, taking the idea of paper dolls and examining the roles society hands out to women. Charming and clever!
In the name of ‘blogging’, I’ve just spent a fun couple of hours on a rainy afternoon looking through my physical and virtual shelves. How about taking a look at the books you own? Which are the cover styles that appeal to you? And why?