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Fantasy Book Covers Intimidate Me—Here’s Why

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Abby Hargreaves

Staff Writer

Abby Hargreaves is a New Hampshire native living and working as a Children’s Librarian in Washington, D.C. She fulfills the gamut of the librarian stereotype with a love of cats, coffee, and crocheting (and likes a good run of alliteration). Her MLIS degree enjoys the company of a BA in English from Hollins University, making Abby an advocate of women's universities. Her favorite color is yellow.

I consider myself a casual fan of speculative fiction. Twilight came out when I was 13 and, by then, I had already been reading Harry Potter for a while, so my interests grew into other fantasy novels with the occasional piece of science fiction. Then the dystopian boom came along, which generally incorporated pieces of science fiction or fantasy, so I read a bit of that, too. The more I read, the more interested I was in the origins of speculative—particularly fantasy—fiction. And then I started seeing older fantasy book covers.

Hoo boy. There’s a lot going on with them, isn’t there?

Into the Labyrinth by Margaret Weis and Tracy HickmanThe problem is, I find them entirely intimidating. Head on over to Google and try an image search for “90s fantasy,” “80s fantasy,” “70s fantasy,” or even “60s fantasy” and you’ll get a pretty quick idea of what I’m talking about. Highly-stylized art on covers with loads of detail. They all seem like an awfully big commitment. I see this and ask myself, oh boy, am I going to have to sit through excessive scenery and war depictions? Is the bulk of the plot detailed political discussions set in ornate castles? Will there be feasts that list every bite of food on the table? (Sorry, J.R.R.)

These covers always seem to scream “high fantasy” to me. (While high fantasy technically refers to books that take place entirely in a fantasy world, I also use it to describe fantasy fiction that is just a lot—dense prose, overly-detailed descriptions, highly-political plots, you get the idea.) I can’t say exactly why that is. Maybe, early on, I had exposure to high fantasy with these covers and it created an association. Maybe there’s something to be said about something like internalized misogyny in me, and that the complex covers indicate complex interiors which is intended for men because of the myth that science fiction and fantasy are for men (and when women write it, it’s for young adults). Maybe there’s just something about the intricate covers that turn me off, like detailed illustrations in graphic novels have.

The Eye of the World by Robert JordanWhatever the cause, these kinds of covers have long intimidated me and kept me from truly diving into even fantasy that I might have enjoyed. When a book’s cover suggests high fantasy and I know I’m not ready for that kind of commitment, I’m going to disregard it out of hand as a reading option. Book covers aren’t always a great gauge for the content of a book, but they do inform potential readers about the book. So I use what limited information I have to decide not to read a lot of these books and probably miss out on some great stuff as a result.

At used book sales, I typically totally disregard the fantasy mass market paperbacks. Pretty inevitably, most of the books in those collections have these kinds of covers. With precious little time to shop (you have to leave time to read!), I don’t waste my time digging through these covers to find blurbs or jacket copy that might otherwise entice me. I just generally assume these books are not for me. And that’s a shame.

Is this a me problem or a publishers problem? Both? I’m certain I need to get over myself to some degree, but I also figure publishers are doing something like gate keeping. Those highly detailed and stylized covers do feel, for whatever, very masculine to me. And maybe someone smarter than I can articulate why that is. Whatever the case, if publishers continue to publish in this style, I have a feeling they’re alienating a good chunk of a potential market.

Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen KushnerThere’s a good chance many people will respond to this with something along the lines of “feminists want to ruin publishing/book covers” and “not everything has to be for you.” But all I’m saying here is that publishers are probably missing out on lots of consumers because their covers do not accurately represent the contents of their books. For those intimidating fantasy book covers that are accurately representing their interiors, I say well done! But for the rest, I’m sorry—it’s not you, it’s me. (Maybe.)

Has a book cover ever turned you off from even picking a book up to find out what it’s about? Is there a whole category of book covers that are automatic deal breakers for you? Tell us in the comments.