Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

December 29, 2010

Fantasy cover artwork

Filed under: essay — Tags: , — Sam @ 12:02 am

Cover image: The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock HeartA dear friend gave me a book earlier—The Boy with the Cuckoo-Clock Heart, by Mathias Malzieu (tr. Sarah Ardizzone), and the first thing that struck me about it was that the cover is gorgeous. We checked inside: Chatto & Windus. “Oh, it’s not a genre imprint, that explains it.”

It’s a wrap-around dust jacket, with elegant, energetic artwork by Benjamin Lacombe. The two dancing figures are very stylised, done in glowing colours with doll-like skin and simply but cleverly textured clothing swept by motion. Their pose, and the whole energy of the picture, flows towards the right as if her beckoning hand were about to reach a little farther and lay the book open to us—though she has her eyes averted, and he looks alert and a little suspicious.

Behind them, brass gears turn, part of some gigantic clock with its workings laid bare and the hands an afterthought, with (on the back of the book) two dark and villainous silhouettes running across the cogs. The colours are warm but muted and patchy, as though stained with soot, and behind them a tall, crowded city rises. Done in smudged and softened pencils, the steep tiled roofs and chimneys are all a little crooked, and a few shadows (perhaps birds, or planes; perhaps dragons, or ornithopters) fly in the hazy air. The sky is clear and parchment-pale, a frame for the title, and the four corners are all subtly shadowed giving a sense of enclosure and an enhanced book-ness.

The layered dimensionality of it suggests depth and complexity, while the swept and stylised nature reminds us that this is a text to be read rather than a secondary world to be vicariously experienced.

I only have one criticism, and that’s the style & placement of the author’s name. The font is rather more generic than I’d prefer, but the white text hides against the red skirt, an effect made worse by the tangential swirls. The metadata format (title horizontally at the top, author’s name at the bottom in smaller text, both centred) is so pervasive that it would only be interesting if it were something else.

The contrast with most recent fantasy releases is rather sad. The artists who do covers for most fantasy books (most from larger UK publishers, at any rate) are very accomplished, but have an absurdly small artistic vocabulary. There will be at least one figure, either full-length or a headshot; cloaks, cleavage, and swords are common, as are straps, buckles, and stubble. Perhaps there will be a horse, or swirly magic instead of a sword. There will often be a monster; if so, it will have spikes or trailing bits. The landscape will be dramatic and gloomy, and probably on fire. The “generically mediaeval” school of fantasy architecture is going out of style, but gothic spires, dark alleyways, and pseudo-Mediterranean terraced vistas are still popular.

The painting will have been done almost photorealistically in oils or acrylics, or with digital-native techniques; the desired effect seems to be disintermediation, removing as many traces as possible of technique or painterly vision from between the prospective reader (for these are always aimed at the person who has not yet bought the book, rather than at the collector or the admirer of beauty) and their potential tour of its secondary world. The scene will inevitably stretch to the edges of the cover, without frame or background panels, and it will be oriented either into the centre of the cover or towards the viewer. There will be very little on the spine, and nothing (a plain black background, or a simple empty land- or skyscape) on the back cover so that the wordy blurb and the pull quotes from other authors stand out.

In addition, everyone is young, white, slim, able-bodied, and beautiful. If there are any older people, they will be male and probably Wisely Bearded. They may or may not bear any actual resemblance to the characters inside the book, but will certainly be the artist’s literal interpretation, and a faithful attempt at rendering people who could actually exist—and who could, plausibly, be the reader, or at least their idealized versions of themselves. The reason so many have hoods shadowing their faces is the same reason so many romance/erotica books have headless women in corsets, or disembodied legs; nobody wants to know, for certain, that it’s Not Them.


  1. That is an AMAZING cover. The cover listed on the Goodreads site, while interesting, isn’t nearly as gripping:

    Damnit, you Brits always get the best cover designs. Why do British book designers seem to spend so much time and come up with such lush covers, while Americans wind up with really blah covers, or formulaic “sepia tones and clockwork,” or “tattooed girl with large weapon” covers?

    I disagree about the font of the byline on this cover – it’s a perfect choice, simply the lowercase version of the title font, and integrates well with that main font for that reason (integrating the byline font is always a challenge when using multiple typefaces). But personally, I would’ve made it smaller and placed it at the lower left, where it wouldn’t conflict with the lighter colours of the skirt…

    Excellent point about the hoods and cloaks on covers, though. One of the hardest parts of designing the cover for HICKEY OF THE BEAST was getting the character right, as several of the girls who COULD be on the cover are not Standard Skinny White Chicks, and the main character is a Latina…

    Comment by Kate — January 4, 2011 @ 9:59 pm

  2. Oh, believe me, I see lots of tediously formulaic covers from British designers! I agree that the worst US ones are worse than the worst UK ones, though – at least judging from the imports I get.

    I see what you mean about the byline font, but to me the only interesting feature of the title formatting is the swirled serifs, and of course the LC version doesn’t have those. It’s not at all bad, just… blah.

    Comment by Sam — January 4, 2011 @ 10:16 pm

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