On my way to work last week, I saw a Goth. Alone! In the wild! Like a baby crow fallen from the nest… I nodded hello, and she vaguely nodded back, looking confused. I nod hello to the few other walkers I see in the mornings – dog walker lady (and dog), beardy hat man, pink coat girl… – in solidarity to all early morning pedestrians. Rain or shine, there we are, caught in our rat runs. Monday to Friday, at least.
Anyway, this Goth. It might seem like I’m poking fun. I suppose I am, mildly, but only in a very self-aware way. I had a Goth phase myself, once upon a time. Well, in my late teens. The girl I saw on my walk was dressed in black (obviously), baggy trousers and black turtleneck, and the obligatory long leather coat. But it was almost like dress-down day. No Bride of Dracula make up, no dyed hair, no spikes or studs. She was probably on her way to work.
My friend Rob once told me that being a Goth wasn’t about what you wore. He said one of the Gothiest people he knew wore nothing but bubblegum pink. Would you peg her for a Goth if you saw her in the street? Doubtful. Someone a bit odd, certainly, but there we are. That’s our problem, not hers.
My Goth phase didn’t last that long. Just like Loki, I lacked conviction. I had a few friends of the Goth persuasion and I assimilated for a while. It was easier to have a group identity than to strike out on my own. I bought a couple of Siouxsie and the Banshees albums, dyed my hair purple and bought a mesh top to wear over a black vest. And a pair of Crims. Big baggy black jeans with huge deep pockets (big enough for a pad of A4 paper or a bottle of Coke) and straps and zips. Very useful. I lasted pretty much into my second year of Uni.
By that time, the friends for whom I had reinvented myself were at their own universities, or jobs, and I had found a new crowd. It was easier to carry on. But then I realised that, just as Rob had told me, it didn’t really matter what I wore. My clothing had been the ID badge that got me into the friendship group, but it was my great personality and charm and amazing modesty that kept me there. I stopped wearing the Crims, but I still have them. Occasionally I find them in the back of the wardrobe and laugh at myself. Oh dear.
My later Uni years were taken up with the working-with-children part of my degree and so I had to start wearing grown up clothes anyway. Unsurprisingly my friends were unaffected. It’s almost like books should not be judged by their covers…
Cover art on books is really important. You’d think after all I just said that it wouldn’t be. After all, the saying has to come from somewhere. But, my God, people… The differences in cover art in different countries can be astounding as well as that of different print editions. I like pretty books. I like good books that are also pretty. I like good books. I prefer them to be pretty. I want to show them off. I don’t want to get them all rebound in matching leather hardcovers. I just want them to be classy and capture the feel of the book. I have a few examples.
Fantasy books are great for cover art because of the range of character species, magic use, epic quests, weird settings and so on. But some do it better than others. One thing I do not like is the pseudo-CGI effect. This is evident on my bookshelf, alas, because of the versions of the Gemmell books I own. When I first read Echoes of the Great Song, for example, it was a lovely, well-thumbed old paperback that had this cover art:
I borrowed it from my friend. When I bought my copy, it looked like this:
and matches the other reprints all done in the same style with a Polar Express style figure on the front. I’ve seen a lot worse, and I’m not suggesting that cover art should be the same from the first edition and forever more, but it does make me a little sad. It jars with the old-fashioned fantasy content. Bloomin’ computers! Back to the Stone Age with all of us! Grr! *shakes pitchfork*
Joe Abercrombie is our next stop. When I bought my copies of the First Law trilogy’s three volumes, they all matched (hooray! Another bugbear –when the art/artist changes halfway through a series so they don’t match!) and were elegant and simple. Parchment and runes, and some bloodstains. Beautiful. Just enough gilt to give them some gravitas. Like this:
For a while afterwards though, on one of my frequent Waterstone’s browsing missions, I found newer print runs had these covers:
by Chris McGrath who, I am reliably informed by the Internet, has done various artwork for the Dresden Files. Now, this isn’t a bad cover by any means. But the guy pictured here is a vicious barbarian called Logen Ninefingers aka The Bloody Nine. Say one thing about Logen Ninefingers, say he’s not a sexy dude. The guy on this cover looks scarred and like he handles himself in a fight, but he reminds me of Aragorn: gritty, but still with a full shelf of hair products. I know everyone imagines characters in different ways, but there are limits, and if anyone who has read these books imagines Logen Ninefingers that way, I urge them to seek professional help.
Interestingly, this cover art seems to have faded and been replaced with the original again, or at least, the parchment ones were visible where the portrait ones were not, last time I was in Ye Olde Book Shoppe.
Finally, a tale of differing cover art by language/country. I was working in Canada for a while, and I came across the French-language version of Greg Keyes’s Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series. They only had the French version in the shop, and it looked like this:
Lovely, gentle, classic fantasy illustration that includes elements of the story (the broken tomb in the foreground, for one). It reminds me a bit of a Tarot card. Amazon reliably informs me that this is the English-language version available in Canada (and the US?):
A bit less subtle, but those are at least two easily recognisable characters on the front: Aspar White the holter and Stephen Darige the novice/initiate. In my head Aspar will always be Sean Bean, but the guy on the cover will do. The versions I have all follow the same format:
A block coloured cover with a cameo scene. Each book is a different colour, but the design is the same. I prefer this version to the middle one, but I really wanted the top one. I very nearly spent a lot of dollars on buying the whole series in French (which I would have been able to read, incidentally) just for the cover art. I still vaguely lament not doing so. I would have just looked at them. Like I do with all the pretty shoes I buy but can’t wear for risk of getting them dirty (Scotland is not disposed to delicate shoes).
Why does the cover art have to vary so much? From edition to edition the artist can change, I understand that, but on the same edition in different countries? Surely it’s cheaper and easier to have one design and pay one artist than to re-commission someone different for different language versions/countries. Is it to do with publishing rights?
I am coming to terms with my ability to see deep within a person’s soul and get to know them properly regardless of their outward appearance, but on my bookshelf I must have beauty. A shelf full of books is part of the décor of the room. It’s like a painting. To a bookshelf is where I will gravitate when in a new friend’s house. I want to feed my eyes before I feed my eyes!
Ebooks are on the rise, I know, and cover art (or dustjacket art) is becoming less important. But for me it’s part of the whole book experience. I savour the cover, knowing what lies within. Would you package a sirloin steak in a Mcdonald’s carton?