Apparently when I get stuck with my writing, when I have a review that is almost there but just needs to percolate a little more, I default to ranting about covers.
Well, I default to ranting about stuff in general, but covers are the easiest. Anything else I might do, the overviews of older fantasy books, the character analyses, the looks at weird dollar store finds, all require at least as much planning and research as a normal review would. They’re no good for an on the fly “this isn’t working.”
Covers are mostly impressions, though, and that’s exactly their power. No research needed, just eyes.
Today my eyes are looking at the covers for Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom Series, consisting currently of an original trilogy from the late 90’s (Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen), several short stories, and a fourth book from 2014, with a fifth coming out later this year. This is a piece of dark high fantasy, set in a world where wild magic and necromancers run amok, the structure of the controllable Charter magic used by humans is starting to fall apart, and a hero called the Abhorsen is tasked with defending the remnants of the Charter and setting the warlocks’ reanimated minions back to rest.
You can already start to see from that description where that might go. It’s heroic fantasy, which carries a certain aesthetic with it, it has darker elements, which carry another, and aside from both of those things, the novels build their symbology beautifully. From the magical language we’re given in the Charter marks, to the tools the necromancers use, to any of the other beautiful imagery Nix gives us, there’s plenty in there for a cover artist to work with.
And most of the covers use it well. This is kind of the opposite of The Modern Faerie Tales, the last series I talked about. Where those had three sets of covers that I liked well enough and one that I hated, this series has generally good cover sets with one that I absolutely love. The original covers are perfect and I still can’t say I know why they ever changed them.
We’ll get back to those, though. I want to save the best for last.
I also want to note that I’ll only be looking at the English-language covers, and only for the main series. Looking into it, I’m seeing a lot of foreign covers that I have neither the space nor inclination to talk about, so I’m sticking to the ones that are familiar to me: the two newer American covers, the new Australian ones, and the originals.
As for only doing the main series, there seem to be a lot of little variations among the short story and omnibus covers, but they’re all along the same lines as the four cover sets that I’m already doing. I figure it’s good pick out the most relevant with a series that has so many covers I couldn’t possibly talk about them all.
We’ll go with my personal worst to best, this time around.
The newer American editions come in two versions; these slightly older ones that show Charter marks aflame over a flat color, which apparently double as the UK editions.
And these which are the same idea, transposed over background images of our heroes striding across fantasy landscapes.
I have no dislike in my heart for either of these covers. They pull in one of the major aspects of the series’ worldbuilding, they’re decently eye-catching, and the background images on the set that use them are very pretty. The ones with the backgrounds even have this nice effect of smaller charter marks picked out in gloss all over the mostly matte cover.
But I’ve always thought they were a little boring, especially the ones that just use the flat color as the background. They look to me like nothing so much as those adult Harry Potter covers: made for people who are embarrassed to be reading fantasy because someone, somewhere decided that Real Books don’t have pictures on them.
The ones with the actual backgrounds are definitely better, but they still look sort of standard to me. I feel like I’d probably glance over them on the shelf if I didn’t already know the author.
The newer Australian covers are much better.
I actually really like these, and wish we’d gotten them here in the States. These just look like heroic fantasy to me, with the heroes in fighting poses, sending glowing beams out of their fingertips. I think a lot of people view this sort of thing as cheesy, but to me it’s always been a marker of a book I’d be interested in reading, with characters I want to read about.
These not only look like characters I want to read about, they also look like their book counterparts right down to their attitudes. Sabriel looks like she’ll destroy you, and finally gets her bob. Lirael looks suitably unsure. The glowy magic isn’t book accurate, but considering that most of the powers in the books are sound based, I think we can forgive the translation for a visual medium. The lines in the Abhorsen cover look like they’re supposed to be sound waves anyway. I appreciate the attention to detail as much as the beautiful artwork here.
But I’ll never stop mourning the original covers.
I put Across the Wall here too, largely for balance. This set never got a cover for Clariel.
Done by legendary husband and wife duo Leo and Diane Dillon, these are perfection to me. They’re stylistically unique, they’re creepy and dark, and they’re explicitly fantastical. Not only that, they pull in and showcase so many of the elements that make the series stand out: the Charter marks, the bells, the surcoats and their symbols, the magical accoutrements that Lirael finds.
I think what I love most about these is that they look a little like religious iconography, or something out of medieval manuscript. It suits a fantasy series that deals with the nature of life and death in the collapse of the world’s order perfectly. It even suits the direction the books eventually take, with our characters seeking to rebuild the Charter by becoming the new pillars in its foundation.
Nothing they could put out after was ever going to live up.
I said in my last cover post that all I really want out of a good cover is something pretty enough that suits the series, and I stand by that. All of these covers do that, and I do honestly like all of them. But there’s also that perfect sweet spot of combining what the books give with an artist’s own vision. That’s where you get something really special.
Anyone else have a preference, either for these or one of the international editions that I didn’t cover?