Don’t Judge A Book By It’s Cover: celebrating fantasy artwork

Wyrd and Wonder 2020

I love doing cover art features (and I don’t do them often enough: note to self, up your game), so when I celebrated spacescape covers back in January I was determined to flip the coin and bang the drum for some fantasy covers for Wyrd and Wonder.

I can be hard to please when it comes to fantasy artwork (fickle. The word is fickle. Remember that). Start showing me people – let alone scenes from the book – and I tend to get twitchy. As a rule, this means I dislike many US covers, which trend more often towards ‘action’ scenes. So whilst I have a soft spot for some of the Dragonlance art, I don’t typically like the covers (except for the toned-down Collector’s Editions).

And there’s one cover trope that stops me even picking a book up to read the blurb: yep, I’m talking about moody figures in deep-hooded cloaks, typically brandishing a weapon. I love that it exists though (and I don’t hate the artwork, I hasten to add): it’s keeping me safely out of a subgenre that would probably annoy me anyway.

But today I want to focus on covers I adore, starting with the remarkable artwork for RF Kuang’s devastating martial fantasy:

Where do I start? Jung Shan Chang’s illustrative style is gorgeous, obviously, but I think it’s the swishy smudging that really does it for me. It’s also the starkness of Dominic Forbes’s design, though: the text a single pop of colour against the monochrome illustration (and oh, how apt that while I’m tempted to say it’s black and white, it’s not, it’s shades of grey).

Nick Martell’s UK art for Kingdom of Liars is similar in style, but it doesn’t work quite so well for me (it’s good, but it’s not The Poppy War). I can’t pinpoint why – I think it’s that the smudging is used to create an angular effect, a visual stutter that doesn’t please my eyes as much as the flowing lines.

…there’s definitely something to be said for putting an iconic image on a white background, apparently. The art direction and illustrations of the Ultimate Fantasies Sequence released by Gollancz in 2008 tempted me to buy books I had no interest in reading (I resisted until Sophie Toulouse‘s gorgeous fairy cover for Lud-in-the-Mist, which I very much do want to read). It also makes me warm to the current Fantasy Masterworks, even though I don’t really love the illustrations; the overall design still calls to me (designer unknown).

When it comes to fully illustrated covers, then a landscape or cityscape is usually a safer choice with me than character art. There are exceptions, of course: the covers for Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence and the spectacular cover of The Black God’s Drums by P Djèlí Clark are too arresting to pass by, for example – and this is how I discovered that my exceptions are the work of a small number of artists (…except for The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. That’s all about attitude. Look at her. Look at her).

Chris McGrath’s character work is exquisite – just looking at his portfolio makes me itch to read books I know I’m not interested in (I’ve never wanted to read Harry Dresden and I bounced off Toby Daye). I’m equally absorbed by the faces of Cynthia Sheppard, whose work I could stare at for hours.

…and it doesn’t have to be women on the cover – that’s a coincidence today.

Take the people away (or make them blurry) and we’re on safer territory. I’ve got a definite leaning towards hazy towers, shimmering horizons, gathering shadows and obscuring mists – but that’s true of my taste in art in general. Add in some tall ships or dramatic lighting, and I’m probably already picking up the book to check the blurb.

Pictured: The Bloodprint (US edition) – Steve Stone | The Red Wolf ConspiracyEdward Miller | The Killing Moon – Marc Yankus

All sound a bit risky? Then stick to something sleek and modern and evocative that can hint fantasy rather than scream it. I love discreet covers that use silhouettes or find ingenious ways to hold illustrative elements in well-defined bounds. Apparently it helps if they’re black? I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.

The whole ‘stick an item above / between some good typography’ is getting a bit old and stale (how long will A Game of Thrones influence last? At least one more season)… unless you do it well, of course, and damn there’ve been some good recent examples.

Pictured: The Ruin of Kings – Lars West Nicholson (dragon icon), Jamie Stafford-Hill (cover design) | Pantomime – Pan MacMillan uncredited | Naamah’s Kiss – Gollancz uncredited | The Unspoken NameBillelis

If in doubt, make it dragons or something like them; I know it’s not dragons on The Time of the Dark but they’re hazy smudgy winged things, that’s two or three of my favourite cover tropes in one, shh.

…or make the artist Geoff Taylor, who I mention every time I talk about cover art. He is probably responsible for selling me more books than anyone else in the world (sorry Womble). Casting my eye for this post, I found myself routinely reaching for a book thinking ‘yes that one‘… only to realise it was one of his: David Eddings, Raymond Feist, Janny Wurts, Katharine Kerr – his art has been integral to my fantasy reading for most of my life.

Of course, I’m terribly fickle. Some of my favourite covers don’t tick any of these boxes. But if you’re trying to get me to read the blurb, these are great forms of temptation.

What is your favourite fantasy cover art / who are your favourite fantasy artists?