Is That a Mast Between Your Legs?; the Role of the Fantasy Cover

I love judging books by their covers. I will look at a cover and just judge the shit out of it. “Boob armor,” I’ll scoff, and toss the book contemptuously away. “That dragon looks like a lobster.” Gone.

Is this an effective method? Not really, but I count on the internet to keep badgering me about the shittily-covered books that are really great. This is why we invented the internet, right?

When I first saw my own cover (check it out here), however, I started feeling a little less blasé. Fortunately, I love it, but it got me thinking about the role of covers and the messages they carry. Never one to pass up a little side-by-side comparison, I decided to take a look at the old cover (OC) and new cover (NC) of Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World.

The Original Cover

The Original Cover

First, the stats:

Weaponry

OC: Three swords, one axe, and a helmet. Don’t tell me that helmet’s not a weapon.

NC: A piercing blue stare.

Elements of Vague Menace:

OC: Night, dead trees, agitated horse.

NC: Weather, possibly inclement.

Possible Magical Shit:

The New Cover

The New Cover

OC: One staff, elegantly carved.

NC: Something gleaming yet indeterminate in the middle distance. (I know this is the tower of Genji, rabid Jordan fans, but I wouldn’t if I was looking at the book for the first time.)

Serious and Immediate Threats:

OC: An airborne, malevolent, human-stalking bat creature.

NC: Falling off the mast?

Coed Fellowship of Like-Minded Heroes:

OC: Eight strong.

NC: Conspicuously lacking.

Clothing:

OC: Armor, gown, jerkins, capes.

NC: Lush, billowy shirt. Immaculately laundered.

Phallic Imagery:

OC: Minimal.

NC: To the max.

Based on the new cover, someone unfamiliar with the novel might reasonably expect a coming-of-age tale about a young man with impeccable laundry service, who goes to sea, then secretly pines for the love he left behind, yearning for the day when they will be reunited. Not a lot, in other words, about trollocs slaughtering villagers, or the impending destruction of all creation.

And it doesn’t matter! The new cover doesn’t need to convey anything about the actual substance of the book because The Wheel of Time has been around for decades. The book has been vetted. The role of the cover art now is not to convince the hard-core fantasy fans to read it, because the book, even if you hate it, is already an inevitable part of the fantasy canon.

So what’s this new cover doing? Two things. First, trying to broaden the appeal of the book beyond fantasy’s traditional readership. I know heaps of people who look down on or sideways at fantasy, people who are always starting sentences, “The thing most readers don’t understand about Proust is…”, people who would hesitate to so much as glance at the old cover. Too many swords, too much horseflesh.

The new look, though – Oho! Who’s this strapping young man striking the type of implausible pose usually reserved for models from clothing catalogues? Who does his laundry? Is he pining for his lost love? And that sky! Evocative of someone famous… maybe Turner?

Which brings me to the second goal of the new cover: dressing up the book. This is related to point one, but transcends it. If the old cover says, “Hey, I’m sorta trashy, but I’ll show you a good time,” this new cover is all buttoned up. This is the kind of book you could read in front of your in-laws. Or in church. If you read in church. Which you probably shouldn’t.

That’s my interpretation, anyway. The folks at Tor have their own explanation, which, given that they’re the ones who commissioned the new look, might have a slight edge over mine. The thing I’m curious about, though, is this: If you knew nothing about the book, which cover would prove more enticing?

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