We’ve all pulled a book off the shelf due to having an intriguing cover, and everyone has their own opinion on what makes great cover art. With that in mind, I asked our panelists if they “judge books by their covers”.
I have a habit of wandering through bookstores, picking up books with interesting covers and reading jacket blurbs. A lot of my favorite covers are covers that become more meaningful once you’ve read the book – covers with hidden meanings and secrets to share. The original hardback edition of Set This House in Order by Matt Ruff features what at first looks like a cut-up set of photographs of houses, assembled any which way. On closer inspection, every cut-up piece of the photograph either supports or extends the others, with pieces of storm clouds serving to outline the general shape of the house. This is a really excellent interpretation of the internal world of the novel, which is about a pair of people with multiple personalities falling in love with one another.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is another one that takes a second glance, a third, and then a reading of the book to reveal the meaning of. At first glance, it’s an old-timey picture of a little girl, glaring at the camera from under her circlet, wearing a party dress and wrinkled socks.
Then you notice that she’s hovering about six inches off the ground.
The photographs in the book are an integral part of the experience of reading, and that first photograph lets you know exactly what you’re in for – a story wrapped around pictures that you come back to study as you read, trying to put your finger on what feels so eerie about each of them.
Probably my favorite puzzle cover, though, is for a book that features malevolent architecture, what might be a minotaur confined in an interdimensional labyrinth, and a film that might not exist but that everyone’s seen. The book is House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, and part of what the book is about is, recursively enough, books as physical objects. Appropriately for the theme, the cover looks pretty boring in digital form: just the title, a compass rose, and the author’s name on a field of black. But get your hands on a physical copy, and the story’s very different. That field of black is covered with glossy outlines of blocky, nonsensical room layouts, transitioning to a spiraling nautilus shape with that compass rose at the very center. Peeking out from behind the cover is a glaringly bright second cover, which when revealed is a collage of reds and oranges, blood and tape measures and manuscript fragments. It’s an accurate introduction to the world of the novel, but one that doesn’t reveal its full meaning until after reading.
I’m also a sucker for covers that are just plain old gorgeous, like The Age of Ice by J. M. Sidorova, In the Cities of Coin and Spice by Cathrynne Valente, Helen Marshall’s Gifts for the One Who Comes After, and Green by Jay Lake. I don’t really have favorite artists, since my taste runs more towards photography at this point, but a Dos Santos cover will get my attention pretty much every time. There’s something about the expressive realism of his style that really draws me in.
My very favourite speculative fiction cover is the Penguin Classic-style cover of 1984, with the blacked-out title and author. It’s so so simple, and so evocative, and becomes ever-more chilling when you think of it in context with the world within. It was produced for the 60th anniversary of the book’s release, as a mass-market paperback, and it’s never been more relevant to Western society.
I love simple, clean covers most of the time, so the Vintage Classics cover of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale is a big favourite too. There’s something very sinister about the simplicity of minimalist covers on speculative fiction novels and I love that contrast.
With more recent releases, the UK hardcover for Station Eleven was beautiful – again, simple and elegant. And all three covers for Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha Trilogy, the way the colours gradually become saturated in red as the story darkens is so clever and lovely, and again, they’re not fussy, they’re regal and powerful.
I’m ashamed to admit I’m not very familiar with too many cover artists, I don’t think as a community we celebrate out cover artists enough, but I adore Jonny Duddle’s new Harry Potter covers, he’s managed to capture what I imagined the characters would look like, which is no mean feat after the films coming out.
When it comes to covers I tend to prefer them without people on them, I like clean lines, and simple colour palettes. I have in the part bought books solely based on the covers – The Night Circus (UK hardback) by Erin Morgenstern and The Girl With Glass Feet (UK Hardback) by Ali Shaw being two of them. I suspect cover art is like any art, and it’s all down to whether it speaks to your soul. My favourite painting is Starry Night, by Van Gogh, and if I think about that’s the kind of style I like in my covers too – strange, melancholy, and beautiful.
David Lee Summers – Lightning Wolves Artist: Laura Givens
I love that the covers for this series do two things. On first glance you get a quick picture of some of the main characters, and you know it’s steampunk. Second, when you take more time to study the covers, there is plenty of detail to keep your eyes busy. Plus the author’s daughter modeled for one of the characters in her steampunky outfit.Karin Lowachee – Gaslight Dogs Artist: Sam Weber
The white swirling snow background draws you into the center, seeing the main character. Then one notices the gaslight, the wolf, the spear, the tattoos. It is all very nicely done. By the way, Sam Weber has also done some covers for Brandon Sanderson’s work as well.
Jim Bernheimer – Prime Suspects Artist: Rafaele Marinetti
This has lots crisp, clear SF elements – the big hangar, the ships in the background, the drawn weapon. But then we also have a touch of the natural elements with the wisps of steam or perhaps fog near the person’s feet. No matter how much tech we acquire, we will never be truly free of nature.
Melinda Moore – Rapunzel: Stay At Home Mom Artist: Kevin Yancey
This image has the rich, bright colors and it’s pretty simple compared to other cover art I have featured here. I like that the hair is a little flirty and that the scissors denote that something shall happen in this book. It appeals to the imp in me. 😉
Jack Campbell – The Dragons of Dorcastle Artist: Dominick Saponaro
Once again, we have some great cover art that gives you a first impression (steampunk goggles, handgun, dragon in the background) and then when we take a second look, there’s plenty of details for the eye to feast on. I also love that the entire cover is done in mauves, browns, etc. It’s like we are seeing the cover through tinted goggles of our own!
Radio Repertory Co. of America (RRCA) & Larry Weiner – Anne Manx & the Blood Chase Artist: Douglas Shuler
I am still exploring this audio series, but I fell in love with the covers straight away. First, the main characters are drawn to resemble the voice artists behind them. I am sure many SF geeks know these faces from beloved SF tv series. I like the mischievous look each character has. Also, the torsos and heads are floating in a nice space opera background.
Henry Herz – Nimpentoad Artist: Sean Eddingfield
This is a great example of what cover art can be for children’s books. You have this main image of Nimpentoad himself, but then also a lot of detail in the background. I think this is one of those books that children can return to over and over again as they age, not just because of the story line, but because of the cover art and illustrations. The detail gives readers something new to discover each time.
AJ Spencer – The SnowRaven Chronicles Artist: Octo Graphics
I loved all the cover art for all 4 books in this series. The black and white with a clean background really made the main character, Saska, stand out. I could put all my focus on her when I look at these images. Plus she has a cool assortment of weapons, clothes, face paint, and her companion snow fox.
James Maxey – Greatshadow Artist: Gerard Miley
I like this cover art for selfish reasons – it depicts one of my favorite heroines. There’s waves crashing, an erupting volcano, a hovering dragon – this cover just oozes danger. And not just any danger, but big Mother Earth natural event type of danger. So many elements of tooth & nail, wind & wave are seen here.
Andre Norton & Mercedes Lackey – The Elvenbane Artist: Boris Vallejo
Of course I can’t ignore one of the great classic artists of SFF – Boris Vallejo. In particular, The Elvenbane was the first book that made me aware of this man’s talent. I like how the humans and creatures in this work all have muscles. The little highlights here and there, like on claw tips, really brings out the detail. I feel like these characters could jump off the cover.
I readily admit to being a book cover tart. I don’t judge a book by it’s cover but it’s certainly the first thing that draws my eye and tempts me to pick it up and check out the blurb. Obviously, there are some great books with poor art and vice a versa but at the end of the day something has to appeal to you in the first instance. It would be tempting to just pick lots of lovely covers here but I’ve decided to look at a couple of people whose work I really enjoy, plus a magazine and a particular series of books with covers that I love.
Michael Whelan has to be my first choice. I first really became aware of his artwork reading The Foundation series by Asimov (and I have to give acknowledgement to Stainless Steel Droppings here for introducing me to the art and the books). I think what really appeals to me about his work, apart from the fact that he’s incredibly talented, is the depth that he manages to create in his pictures. You have something that immediately draws your eye but when you eventually let yourself take in the full piece it’s usually really deep and complex. I also love his use of such dramatic colour. His Way of Kings and Words of Radiance covers are gorgeous. I have both of these books – untouched as I read them on kindle so they’d stay perfect!
Abigail Larson is an illustrator with her own unique style. I’ve read a couple of books illustrated by Abigail – Beyond the Pale and Monster Goose Nursery Rhymes and have checked out plenty of her other work on the strength of those books. She has a beautifully macabre sense of design, slightly creepy imagery more often than not and I just love her eye for detail.
Apex Magazine – have got to have published some of the most amazing cover art ever! I never get bored of looking at their covers they are really fantastic (I’d love a full series of these, framed under glass, all displayed on one wall). Just take a look – they speak for themselves!
Finally, the covers for the Marie Brennan’s Lady Trent books. All beautifully illustrated. I love the matter of fact way the first dragon is portrayed in the first book as I think it gives you a good idea of what to expect from the book as do the future covers but what I particularly like is the clever way the cover design extends round the back of the book as well. Such a great idea.
Some of my favorite speculative fiction covers are pretty recent, and include those for Cixin Liu’s Three-Body Trilogy and Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s Rabbit Back Literature Society. And while I don’t know much about specific artists working in the genre today, I tend to like bold, stylized covers, like the one for P.J. Manney’s upcoming novel (R)evolution, and the cover of Fantasy and Science Fiction from March/April 2012 (https://www.sfsite.com/fsf/toc1203.htm).
I know I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but its so hard not to! It’s your first impression and what catches your eye to read the blurb (or not). So, yeah, I’m guilty. And I have favorites. I also noticed my favorites can be all over the place for style. I think the commonality among my favorites is that they all are great representations of the story and they all stand out in some way. I hate when I love a cover but then after reading the story can’t quite connect it to what I read. All of these examples are covers that I drew my eye and made me excited to read the book, but then also held up after reading. I can look at these and really see a sense of the book in the images.
I love the UK cover for The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss. Maybe it helps that I love Auri’s character, and to me this perfectly captures her (and its just beautiful).
But sometimes, simple and eye catching works incredibly well. This cover for The Lives of Tao really pops on the shelf, and the images give you a bit to wonder about in relation to the story. All these warriors followed by a gamer? Yeah, I instantly wanted to read this when I saw the cover.
Not all of my favorite covers are simple or beautiful. Jorg’s attitude and is perfectly captured in this cover for King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence.
Finally, for my favorite artist, I have to say I tend to be very impressed with Joey Hi-Fi. His covers are very unique, eye catching and definitely memorable. Everything a cover should be. At first glance I immediately loved this cover for Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig. But then on closer inspection or the details I realized I had many more reasons to love it. The entire image is made up of smaller images that are all pieces of the story. Before reading I could wonder what their significance was and after reading I could remember the story by picking out the pictures. Plus, it just looks amazing.
I’m a sucker for a good cover. Some upcoming and recent covers include Time Salvagers by Wesley Chu, the gorgeous cover art of Lou Anders’s Thrones and Bones series for young adults, and of course Max Gladstone’s Craft sequence series. I’ve always liked the cover art for Charlie Higson’s badass Enemy series, which feature a zombie infested London. Lilith Saintcrow’s upcoming Trailer Park Fae sports some fantastic cover art along with Daniel Jose Older’s Shadowshaper (his Bone Street Rumba books are a feast for the eyes, too.) The cover of The Awesome by Eva Darrows is, well . . awesome. Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory had a fantastic cover, as did Judd Trichter’s Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.
Let’s see, for some more fairly recent picks . . . Guy Adams’ Heaven’s Gate Trilogy has some really creepy, evocative covers and Jay Kristoff’s Lotus War books are absolutely amazeballs. Dreamer’s Pool by Juliet Marillier is particularly lovely. I suppose to close this out I should go old school a bit, huh? I admit to having a soft spot for just about every cover of every book Robert McCammon wrote early in his career, probably because they’re what I cut my reading teeth on, and while certainly not as old school as the McCammon books, the covers on Cherie Priest’s Eden Moore series (Four and Twenty Blackbirds, etc) are absolutely stunning, and perfectly convey the beauty and terror to be found between the pages. Heck, let’s throw in her Clockwork Century books as well . . . stunning, I say! I could have a go at this all day, so I’ll wrap it up now, but hopefully that’ll give you enough eye candy (and good reading) to fill up a whole bookshelf.
From as far back as I can remember I have judged books by their covers. To this day I continue to add books to my collection solely because of book cover art, and to my delight that habit has led to the discovery of some of my favorite reading experiences.
One of my long-time favorite cover artists is Michael Whelan. In addition to the appreciation of his skill and imagination as an artist, I appreciate the fact that he prefers to actually read the full manuscript before submitting cover proofs. This gives him the opportunity to either pull details directly out of the book to include in his cover image or to create a piece of art that reflects the spirit of the story (or both). It is a pleasure to be able to converse with an artist not only about a painting done for a book cover but also their thoughts on the book that their art graces. Though it is hard to choose due to his prolific cover illustration work, two of my favorite Michael Whelan covers are for This Alien Shore by C.S. Friedman and Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov. Both covers are examples of books I read first and foremost because I wanted to know who these characters were that Michael Whelan had painted.
Another amazing painter, whose presence on a cover will stop me in my tracks whenever I am at a bookstore or library is Kinuko Y. Craft. She too infuses her cover illustrations with details from the story. Craft is a contemporary artist whose work reflects both Renaissance and pre-Raphaelite inspirations and her fine art pieces reward multiple viewings because there are small hidden details that are easy to miss on a first or second viewing. I enjoy the way each of her paintings tells a story. Patricia A. McKillip is an author whose work has a unique lyricism and the choice by Ace Books years ago to pair McKillip and Craft was inspired. Their work harmonizes in a way that few author-artist combinations achieve. As I read McKillip’s stories I frequently find myself flipping back to the wrap-around cover to tease out aspects of Craft’s art. It is hard to pick just one favorite out of the covers she has done for Patricia A. McKillip, but if pressed I will say the cover for The Tower at Stony Wood, in part because the painting as a whole appears to draw inspiration from one of my favorite poems, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott”.
A more recent favorite discovery is the work of artist Jeffrey Alan Love. I first discovered his work with the Gollancz UK release of Simon Ings’ novel Wolves back in late 2014. Gollacz has re-released several of Ings’ novels with Jeffrey Alan Love covers and I want to own them all. I enjoy the way in which Love uses the negative space in an image to create aspects of the work, a good example being the character outline revealed by the positioning of the neck and jaw of the wolf on the Wolves cover. Jeffrey Alan Love has an appealing sense of design. His covers for the Simon Ings novels include a lot of stark, white space which makes the image stand out, and more recently he has been experimenting with the use of color for the background of the piece, like with the cover for Dreams of Shreds and Tatters by Amanda Downum, which I find equally effective.
It would be easy for me to take up the entire Mind Meld with talk of impactful book cover illustrators. John Harris’ spaceships and science fictional landscapes are eye-catching, be they the covers done in decades past for the work of Orson Scott Card or his more recent work creating paintings for John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series. I cannot look at a John Harris painting without dreaming of stepping into that futuristic landscape. Like the work of John Berkey before him, I would like to live in Harris’ future. The cover for Zoe’s Tale is one of my recent favorite John Harris paintings. Artists like Stephan Martiniere and Daniel Dociu use a digital palette to create equally arresting science fictional paintings. I look forward to each new release in the Expanse series by James. S.A. Corey to see what the art department at Orbit Books has commissioned from Daniel Dociu.
As the above artists demonstrate, good art can either embody aspects of the author’s story or exist more as a reflection of the type of story being told, and still be effective in getting a reader to stop and pick up a book. I think of the work of Richard Powers, particularly his covers for my beloved Stainless Steel Rat novels, with their surrealist imagery show how art for speculative fiction covers doesn’t have to be similar to other work on the shelf to be eye-catching. In a day and age where I see more and more photo capture covers or art-free covers on science fiction and fantasy novels, I feel it is important to champion the work of artists as a continued part of the book creation experience. Art is inspiring, and I despair to see companies going away from the use of art on their book covers.
Stephen Youll’s cover art for Dragon Queen by Stephen Deas is my most recent favorite. It impressed me so much that I begged Steve (Deas) for a t-shirt (now my favorite t-shirt). It is a very fierce and realistic-looking dragon, but don’t ask me how I know what a real dragon would look like.
I also like the cover art for Ann Leckie’s Ancillary books, but I don’t know whose work they are. They are very abstract suggestions of space ships, in washed out green-grey blues with red accents. Very different from dragons, but I would wear one of them on a t-shirt too if I could find one.
I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t thought to look up the names of very many artists whose cover art I’m drawn to. Julie Dillon’s work, which I first noticed on Twitter, impressed me so much that I backed her Imagined Realms Kickstarter and as a result I now have a signed book on my coffee table. Mia Serrano’s (Likhain) work also impresses me, but the only place I “own” it is on the cover of Zen Cho’s Spirits Abroad.
I like the cover art by Kris Kamikakushi (I had to look this up) for Retold, edited by Thea and Ana (Book Smugglers). I also like the cover art by Elizabeth Leggitt for Women Destroy Fantasy, edited by Cat Rambo. These covers both feature a weapon-bearing woman, but I’m not sure they have much else in common. I also like Lauren Saint-Onge’s cover of The Enceladus Crisis, by Mike Martinez and it’s a ship (okay, so ships are often also women).
Other covers that have appealed to me recently, but for which I know no artists names, include the ones for The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch, River of Stars by Guy Gavriel Kay (UK version), and The Killing Moon by N K Jemisin.
So what can we surmise from what seems to me to be a varied and strange collection of favorite covers and artists? It seems I like primary colors and simple, graphic designs. I don’t like attempts at realistic looking people, except when I do (usually women). I do like attempts at realistic looking dragons (mostly Youll’s work) and imaginary ‘scapes that are stark and forbidding: Ships in space, ships at sea, desert fortresses perched on cliffs, which could just as well be buildings floating on seas of sand.
I guess this is just another case of “I can’t define it, but l know it when I see it!”
I picked up Isaac Asimov’s collection Robot Dreams (1986) when I was sixteen, and the cover was love at first sight. Ralph McQuarrie’s art hints at the inner life of a robot by suggesting not merely that it can dream, but that it can take a nap, or perhaps fall asleep in a semi-improvised pose, a very human activity indeed. The art is precise, rich with straight lines and granular detail, but shot through with warmth. I particularly like the body of water in the background and the sun glinting off its surface, which I tend to think of as a kind of ocean of experience that the robot may be tapping into through its dreams (in addition to representing some far-off world or idyllic future on this one). Or perhaps everything we’re seeing is itself a robot dream, a fantasy in which the robot has rendered itself akin to humans? I wasn’t familiar with Philip K. Dick’s work at the time, but this is a lovely literalization of the question Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, one in which the paranoid slipperiness of the android has been replaced with the elegant classicism of the Golden Age robot.
Next up something shockingly different. I’ve always had a soft spot for the cover of the original edition of Barry Malzberg’s Revelations (1972). It’s stark, explicit, and one of the farthest things that comes to mind when thinking of science fiction–as detractors have described it–in terms of pulpy escapism. There’s nothing that hints at fun or adventure in this Cronenbergian picture of an objectified naked woman, abdomen split, spikes uniting her two halves, her head trapped inside a TV set. Her arms are in a crucifix pose, though that is implied rather than shown, and her eyes are closed, while the upward tilt of her head suggests that she’s beseeching the heavens (or is it simply a more dramatic pose for her TV appearance?). I like this picture’s body horror, its almost aggressive lack of color sophistication, relief, or perspective, its straightforward, hammering societal critique. I don’t know who the cover artist is, but he/she forged what is for me a canonical piece of New Wave science fiction art.
Third, I’m going to single out Lee Moyer’s stunning cover for Subterranean Press’ The Best of Michael Swanwick (2008). Its concentric design, initially almost dizzying but quite orderly upon reflection, beautifully embodies the multiple layers of Swanwick’s rich fiction: at its core lies one of the author’s most beloved and playful characters, the perfectly sly and unexpected culmination of our visual odyssey. The intricacy and baroqueness of the patterns generates a cool steampunk vibe, one which to my mind evokes works by Jules Verne, such as this edition of Hector Servadac (Off on a Comet, 1877).
As a runner-up to these three picks, I’ll note that Michael Whelan’s cover for the 1983 Del Rey/Ballantine paperback edition of Asimov’s Foundation’s Edge (1982) has never once failed to elicit a sense of wonder in me. I know I’m not alone in this, since editor Jonathan Strahan recently made a comment to the same effect, and others chimed in in agreement. I find this piece of art utterly compelling, simultaneously majestic and chilling.
Picking a single favorite artist is surely folly, but that hasn’t stopped me before, and it won’t now. I’m going to go with Jim Burns for this one. The reason is simple: his cover for the 1995 British paperback edition of Robert Silverberg’s Valentine Pontifex (1983) is a cornerstone of sf/f art for me. It performs a wonderful trick: it pictorially unites two strands of Silverberg’s career, the darker, more angst-laden midperiod work, and the more expansive, stately post-retirement novels, in particular the Majipoor works. It’s all there in that one cover. And of course Burns has brought to life countless other Silverberg works, as well as novels and collections by Jack Vance, John Varley, George Alec Effinger, Gene Wolfe, Robert Charles Wilson, Walter Jon Williams and many other writers whose work I enjoy.