Even Great Paintings Can Be Lousy Covers

A couple of weeks ago, Vonda concluded her contest on bad book covers, showing some truly awful ones. But how about book covers that are good art, but have absolutely nothing to do with the book?

About 8 or 9 years ago, I saw Charles Keegan’s painting, Held by Honor, which I really liked. Others must have liked it, too, because it won Best in Show at the World Fantasy Convention.

It’s a painting of a young woman warrior in chain mail, holding a large sword. The fact that the warrior is wearing serious mail is enough to put this picture head and shoulders above all those dreadful ones that gave Esther Friesner the title for her series of funny sword and sorcery anthologies, Chicks in Chain Mail. But the part of the painting that really got me — as a martial artist who has devoted some time to sword training — was her forearms. They are the forearms of someone who could actually use the massive sword she holds.

Women who train with weapons get forearms like that. One assumes that under her mail she has back muscles to go with the forearms, and that her chest is also broad and open.

The young warrior is attractive, but with the natural beauty of youth rather than the artifices usually applied. She strikes me as someone who has just crossed over from the naive enthusiasm of youth into the more complex understanding of the world that comes with age.

Keegan is also a martial artist, and told me the model was a teenager he knew, and that he showed her how to use the sword as preparation for the painting. I would have bought it, but it was beyond my means.

Fire LogicA couple of years later, I was at a book release party at WisCon and saw the painting again as the cover of Laurie Marks’s novel Fire Logic, available here at Powell’s Books.

I immediately said, “Oh, how wonderful that you got that painting for your cover. I love that painting.” And several people who had already read the book looked at me darkly and said, “The cover has nothing to do with the book.”

And, indeed, when I read the book, which I also loved, I realized they were right — disturbingly right. The warrior on the cover is intended to represent the primary character in the book, Zanja na’Tarwein. Here is a description of Zanja together with her mentor, the Speaker for the Ashawala’i:

Though they did not look like anyone else in the square, they were distinctly similar to each other: small-framed where the Shaftali were sturdily built, dark-skinned where the Shaftali were fair, with eyes and hair black as obsidian, where the townsfolk were generally tinted the color of earth. In dress also, they stood apart as strangers, wearing long tunics of finely woven goat’s wool and jerkins and leggings of deerskin, while the working people wore breeches and longshirts. Both had long hair plaited and knotted at the backs of their heads. Let loose from its bindings, the young woman’s hair would have brushed her thighs and the man’s hair would have reached his knees.

The main character in this book is not a Nordic-looking white-skinned blonde, but a black-haired woman whose skin is either black or dark brown. A woman, in fact, from a tribal people who look very different from the generally light-skinned Shaftali. She is, at least, a warrior and a blade fighter, though her knives don’t look like the blade in the picture. These differences in her appearance and her heritage are integral to the book and the Elemental Logic series, which it introduces.

I still like the painting, but every time I look at the book cover all I can think of is, “Why did they put a white woman on the cover of a book that is so obviously about a black woman?”

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Nancy Jane’s flash fiction for this week is “Your Favorite Cabinet.” Her collection Conscientious Inconsistencies is available from PS Publishing and her novella Changeling can be ordered from Aqueduct Press.

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Even Great Paintings Can Be Lousy Covers — 4 Comments

  1. This brings back memories. I had a cover incident that was similar, though the painting in question was done specifically for the book.

    The characters in the book have just come from a trek in the woods they are described as wearing homespun shirts, leather jerkins and breeches with soft leather boots. One indeed has been riding astride when she falls from her horse.

    On the cover of the novel, both young women are wearing vivid velvet gowns more suited to a royal ball than a romp in the woods. Their hair is loose and looks distinctly blow-dried and styled.

    The artist, God bless him, did get the young man in the background right — he was indeed big and blond and burly.

    Actually, now that I think of it, it happened again a couple of novels later. My Mongolian-looking protagonist with hair “the color of moonlight on wheat” ended up a pale-skinned honey blonde with blue eyes. I wrote Bortai; the artist painted Helga.

    In my case, I’m pretty sure the artist (who nailed the cover of Book One in the series) just didn’t get to read the scene himself, or at least didn’t read the material around the scene.

    In any event, I designed the covers for the reprints. 🙂

  2. It’s been awhile since I had these conversations, but it seems to me that I spoke about the cover to either Laurie or her wife, Deb, and they weren’t thrilled with it.

  3. On the cover of The Stone War you see the ruined skyscape of New York, the protagonist, John Tietjen, and an angel. A full out Old Testament robed-and-winged white person of indeterminate gender. In the book the “angel” was an elderly homeless woman, African-American, missing several fingers on each hand, with wings that look like they’d have belonged on a bat. Tietjen refers to her as an “angel” because he’s fond of her. The artist heard the word “angel” and couldn’t adjust his thinking to reflect the character.

    On the other hand, the sales force loved it. “We can sell anything with an angel on the cover!” So I bit my lip.