The Sunday Salon: Fantasy Covers

Picking over the fantasy section at my local library during my volunteer hours sometime in December, Jude Fisher’s The Rose of the World caught my eye; I found the cover art delightfully dated, the sort of thing that most entries at Good Show, Sir are trying to get to but hilariously fail to. As I perused the inside flap, I discovered that Fisher had also written The Lord of the Ring visual companions—I have to admit, for a scant moment, I wondered if Fisher had created visual companions in the nineties, but these visual companions are, of course, the visual companions to the Jackson adaptations, one of which I actually own. Checking the copyright page, I discovered The Rose of the World had been published in 2005.

Guys, we need to talk about fantasy covers—specifically, where does this come from and what do we do with it?

I’ve actually had some trouble piecing this mystery together. My first reaction is to pin it on the artist, I have to admit—and while that very distinctive art style is commonly found on what I consider dated (I don’t want to say bad, as there’s a camp charm to them) fantasy covers, it can be found on good and dated cover alike.

For instance, let’s look at Michael Whelan, one of the speculative fiction illustrators (well, until he decided to focus on his fine art). His style is muscular and realistic, but retains that brightness and lightness of the palette that I find characterizes the work of several speculative fiction illustrators—the late Keith Parkinson, Lawrence Schwinger, Clyde Caldwell, and Stephen Youll (who did the original covers for A Song of Ice and Fire). While that style heavily reminds me of ’80s and ’90s mass market paperback covers, it’s not a bad thing—if the cover designer knows how to work with it.

On the left, we’ve got Whelan’s work for Tad Williams’s Shadowmarch, released in 2004.

On the right, we’ve got Whelan’s work for Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, released in 2010.

If it’s the work of the same artist, why does The Way of Kings look better and, to be totally honest, more modern than Shadowmarch?

(And if you say it’s because The Way of Kings is technically more modern than Shadowmarch… I can’t deal with you right now.)

To be totally fair, the subject matter is different—on Shadowmarch, we’ve got your hero in generic Renaissance garb in front of a magic mirror in fog. (As I haven’t read the book, I can’t comment on its veracity to the content.) On The Way of Kings, we’ve got a bright setting with two men saluting each other over chasms, wearing capes decorated with insects.

But it’s the typography that really sets them apart. The font on Shadowmarch is certainly medieval, but its elegance is ruined by the letters outlined in contrasting colors. (I’ve noticed that red outlined by yellow is popular; that needs to stop all together.) In contrast, the font on The Way of Kings is downright runic and, if outlined by another color, it’s white—a neutral. The text is also just centered on Shadowmarch—a good instinct, but nothing special. The text is played with a little on The Way of Kings; the series subtitle is dodging the salute. (Although I think Brandon Sanderson’s name is way too big. It’s eating the title, and that’s not how that’s supposed to work.) The colors of the text also match the cover, perhaps even taken out of the illustration, unlike Shadowmarch. While that cover suffers a little in content (generic fantasy setting!), I think it could be just as good as the other one.

In the end, I think, we can safely blame cover designers not working with what they’ve got—authors, after all, have little say in what goes on the cover.

I continue to be busy—and, of course, with all the work I have to do, what did I do yesterday? Secret birthday project for y’all that I can’t talk about until April instead of actual work. Yeesh. I got through Malinda Lo’s Ash this week (I have to say author and title for this one, for some reason) and I’m going to start on Helen Castor’s She-Wolves of England when I can. I basically need to read for school all day today.

Tor/Forge’s Blog is giving away a Halo book and audiobook bundle until February 15th. Kristen at Fantasy Cafe is giving away a copy of The Skin Map until February 16th. The Baen Free Library is full of free downloads, including The Shadow of the Lion and On Basilisk Station. Night Shade Books is offering Butcher Bird and Grey as free downloads at the moment. Vertigo Comics is offering free downloads of the first issue of several series, including Fables, The Unwritten, and Y: The Last Man. (And you will go download The Unwritten.) If I’ve missed your giveaway or freebie, drop me a line!

What makes a fantasy cover dated for you?

4 thoughts on “The Sunday Salon: Fantasy Covers

  1. There’s a used book store in my neighborhood and I love to search out the crazy covers in the fantasy section. I don’t know why they all have to be so campy though. Well, to be honest, some do work for the books but I still don’t get why they all, OK most, have to be so odd and off putting. Some of them make me laugh so hard I have to put them down knowing there is no way I could read the book because I wouldn’t be able to stop staring and laughing at the cover artwork.

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