Covering Ugliness. Part 1.1: Fantasy Books

Every time we enter a book megastore looking for a gift, or just checking out new publications we have to avert our eyes from the pile of ugliness that attacks from every shelf. Of course, there are examples of good design but the amount of bad ones is terrifying. It’s often bland bad but sometimes it reaches the level of epically, hilariously bad – and this is our newest preoccupation: we’ve decided to publish a series of posts on the ugliest finds in the local bookstore.

Today one of the genres that invite the most kitsch, namely fantasy books. This is not a highbrow critique entitled “We wouldn’t touch a fantasy book with a pole and also they’re ugly.” This is more of “When we read fantasy in public places we hate that we have to hide the cover.” We’ve discovered that bad fantasy art falls into a couple of categories and follows a couple of graphic clichés. (When possible we show English language versions of the books for clarity.)

1: Teen Wet Dream

Maybe it’s gamers’ aberration, but when we think of bad fantasy art we think of women of impossible and questionable standards of beauty: with cleavage ever so deep, hair ever so shiny and muscles ever so hard. It’s only one type of sinful cover art for fantasy books but a prominent one.

These books by Patricia Briggs on, apparently, biker werewolf sluts satisfied our expectations because while colors and compositions are passable and typography, while clumsy, not nerve-wrenchingly awful, drawings are unforgettable. Shiny women combine porn-star quality and boobs which would give Dungeons & Dragons illustrators run for their money, with strangely retarded faces. Maybe it’s a smart social commentary on the plight of women who have to work in car repair shops. But somehow we think not.

Sorry for the bad pun but on these bad, bad covers for Ilona Andrews’ series magic sucks, anatomy suffers and Aslan proves a sellout. Also compositions resemble really bad collages, swords shine like in Photoshop tutorials 101 and we could go on but we mercifully won’t. Magic speaks for itself. (Also, I’ve only just noticed these titles rhyme but it’s probably accidental like everything here seems to be.)

In another one by Ilona Andrews the magic rifle reminds a little of the biker series. However, what really makes this cover such a success is the gigantic floating head (and ghostly half a torso) of a man as if taken from an 80s band for teenagers with his blonde hair, pouty little lips and dead stare.

The books by Licia Troisi look extremely kitschy but less disgusting than most of other exhibits: maybe because of the color, they remind a guilty pleasure more than a guilty chore and look like something you just want to try even if it will probably make your teeth hurt. Also, it’s clearly for teenage girls and isn’t their taste all wacky anyway.

Moving into more romantic areas, we present Jacqueline Carey and her Kushiel series. Whatever Kushiel is, it has something to do with this forever topless lady with the kind of tattoo that takes a really good plastic surgeon to remove but you’re paying because it’s just so embarrassing. Or actually maybe it’s a whole order of badly tattooed women because they have various degrees of anatomic disorders, not just one kind.

Series by Anne Bishop dominated a whole shelf so we couldn’t miss the old-German-porn-like lady (the word lady used most broadly here) with the web behind. In some ways it typifies what we think of as a fantasy book cover. And then there are other in the series, with their bad Photoshop filters, twisted anatomy and over-the-top harlequin feel. Extra kitsch points for the hottie in a ruffled shirt with a shining elbow.

2: Furry Fury

As already illustrated, large, aggressive animals tend to ornate fantasy covers and become the main motif on some of them.

This is possibly the weirdest image we found but for all its creepiness – this woman has a puma where her torso should go and the puma’s mouth… uhm – it lets us move smoothly to the next category involving magical animals. Because this woman has a puma where her torso should go. It doesn’t get any more magical than that. The dreamy flowers let us hope this is not a story of dismemberment but then again, the sword… Or maybe the puma ate the woman and then a knight cut off its head and then a magician bound them together into a woman-puma-meadow creature. Yes, that’s probably it. Or not? We give up.

Three versions of Erikson’s book about apparently the Hound of Baskervilles with rabies involve, between them, all the clichés we’ve come up with. At the same time, they remain inspiringly different, even if all the illustrators used the same Google search image to work from.

These S. A. Swann’s covers couldn’t be more different (even in the order of initials). (Yeah, okay, they could if one was good.) We originally thought to include the first version for the hermaphroditic quality of the person, looking like David Bowie gone Tarzan. The toned down colors almost drove as away from this idea until we found the English version online. Now this one has much to love: the amateurish 3D lettering (which, by the way, seems a must in a fantasy cover), superheavy shadows under every single letter but, best of all, all these photographs fading in and out into one another. It’s like a really boring, really badly executed dream.

Naomi Novik’s two versions are interesting in how wasteful it seems to have paid two people for doing essentially the same job. Sure, Polish snakes lost their glamor along with their wings and can’t twine so intricately but instead the desert is yellower (is this a Photoshop texture or does it only look it?), the ball-thing bigger and the drop shadow instantly visible.

That’s not all: we’ve got two more exciting categories so be sure to check back. Until then we apologize in advance for all the nightmares we might have caused.

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10 comments
  1. Dave said:

    Dude…if you like fantasy books but feel the need to “hide the cover” maybe you are reading the wrong genre. Fantasy and Science Fiction is not for the average “fifty shades of something” reader. Maybe you should stick to something more for general public. Its like saying you like christian books but feel the need to hide them, or you like horror but feel the need to… w.t.f?
    On the other hand… giving those illustrations on Patricia’s covers as an example shows a little bit that you don’t have a very good idea about Fantasy art genre in general. This genre, style, subculture if you want covers all forms of art from painting, poetry, literature to music and fashion.
    About the artist ( i will not give his name on such a lousy topic) who made the “slut” on Patricia’s covers…he is one of the best Fantasy and Science Fiction artists alive, with lots of awards won in this Fantasy art world that you don’t seem to have a clue about. All the artists and big fantasy authors know him and his work. .
    There is at least one reason why the artist who did those illustrations is so wide well known. Don’t make me say it. Okay, I will. He knows how to paint and draw. With brushes.And oil paint. For real. Thus bringing amazing artistic value to something that could otherwise be just a “copy-paste” whatever cover and being able to make an entire exhibition of oil or acrylic paintings starting from a book story.
    So as an author, why should I hire a just a designer when I can bring all my world to life with an artist like him? He knows design anyway. Why not making a fantastic promotion for my books, stories, characters, working with someone who is able to create all that I can imagine? Just because some whatever people feel the need to hide fantasy covers? Be serious. Its like saying you listen to rock music only when you’re alone. Or that you read Game of Thrones just for the sex and violence and missing the whole point of the fantastic genre in the first place.
    Another idea… well… Women. I have to say it dude, sorry. So women who wear a “cleavage ever so deep” must be sluts. Good. Or isn’t it so good? We are judging again the woman by her “cover”. She can’t be beautiful, she’s a slut! Come on! How old are you?. And the female characters have to be ugly. Or below the average beauty of a woman.( I don’t know if you noticed but women tend to be beautiful in general). Right? Why place a beautiful figure on your cover? Its not like everybody loves beautiful people.
    Okay… Next. ” After all they have impossible and questionable standards of beauty: with cleavage ever so deep, hair ever so shiny and muscles ever so hard.”
    Really? The sad and happy part of this ” questionable standards of beauty” is that the artists who make this kind of paintings use real models for reference. Real girls, yeah. Who look just like that. Hot and sexy. Not sluts like you’d like to call them. Lucky bastard artists, huh?
    Too bad for some people who didn’t grow up to see the beauty of the human body and they just see “sluts” everywhere. Even if we would agree on a stupid and absurd phrase like “women are in general ugly” you still don’t get to win this. There is a reason why they call it “fantasy genre” dude. You don’t get to see elves either but artists can paint them too. Or dragons. Or vampires, gnomes, witches, werewolves, ice queens, cpt Picard, Spock, fauns, angels, demons etc.
    Get it? Study, study study. Or just choose some general public “jack of all trades and master of none” stuff if fantasy and science fiction world is to harsh for you. There’s always something for everybody out there. Cheers.

    • Hi, Dave. I will only make a few general remarks about your comment without getting into details because I guess we won’t change each other’s minds – and why should we, anyway. We do appreciate the time you took to comment, though, and, like us, you’re very much entitled to your own opinion.
      A few minor things:
      * We read a lot of fantasy and are not in the least embarrassed about the genre itself. That was kind of the whole point. And we stand by our opinion that lots of those covers make you look un-serious, when yielded in public places. Also, lots of them hurt the books they cover, making them look like trash when they are good, thoughtful literature.
      * Long after this (oldish) article I did read Brigg’s series and I loved it so much I felt a little bad about including these covers. They kind of grew on me since then. So did Troisi’s covers – these two series would not make the list, were we making it now, because these are just technically good, even if campy. However, I feel the way Mercy is presented on Briggs’ covers does not do justice to the awesomeness of her character, as she’s so much more than a sex object!
      * The word “slut” was definitely used tongue-in-cheek for the reason above: we do feel fantasy genre artists objectify women and we hate it, especially in a genre full of wonderful strong female characters. As for you saying we think women should be ugly or something – um, no.
      * We take great offense at your suggestion that we like “Fifty Shades of Grey.” This book is like kryptonite for book-lovers.
      Cheers likewise.

  2. caliwow said:

    Remind me to include you in the cover design when I commission my fantasy novel cover artwork ;)

  3. umanbn said:

    sometimes things are so bad they almost fall into the sob it´s good category…..but not with these…they are just toooo bad…I like the sci-fi fantasy genre but I reallly hate the stereotypical **** like this….nice post though :)

  4. Reblogged this on The Solitary Bookworm and commented:
    Don’t they know that less appealing covers means low sales ’cause there really are readers who base their purchase on what they initially see in front. Great post btw! :)

    • Is it good? In literary, not design terms?

      • Literary it is good. It’s one of my favourite series.
        Very very slutty though.
        It’s a book about politics and spies.
        She turns into a courtesans in order to gain information.
        The whole concept of the book is about love, how it differs from person to person and such.
        I do recommend it.
        My own copies of the book are very well worn.

      • Thanks! I’ll give it a try then.

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