Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Guest Post: Metamorphosis of Urban Fantasy and Cover Art Models by Andrea from the Little Red Reviewer

Urban Fantasy. it’s a slippery thing - sometimes scary, sometimes romantic, usually thrilling, often starring attractive people who try very hard to do the right thing. Pretty hard to say you’re a fan of something, or not, when it’s definition keeps changing every 5 years. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but there’s something about most contemporary urban fantasy that just doesn’t do it for me (and by contemporary, I mean UF that was written in the last 5 years or so).

I was shocked at how difficult this essay was for me to write. I was getting so close, but my words never quite matched how I felt. If I was writing this the old skool way, on paper, with a pencil and an eraser, I’d have erased through the fibers of the paper by now.

I used to read Urban Fantasy, except back then we also called it Magical Realism, and many fans used those terms interchangeably. Some of my favorite authors in that genre were Charles de Lint and Neil Gaiman. De Lint wrote about mythology come to life, regular midwestern college kids who had conversations with crows and coyotes, who traveled to other planes and returned mildly unscathed after seeing another level of our world. In Gaiman’s famous Neverwhere, readers got a look into an unknown London, where a regular Joe helps a woman in need and finds himself sucked into a fantastical and horribly dangerous world populated by all sorts of strange people.

For the most part, the UF books I was exposed to when I was younger, and this was before days of the blogosphere and Amazon, were populated by ultra scary paranormal creatures, and humans who ran away from them instead of befriending them or flirting with them. The urban fantasy of my youth was all about the hero’s journey, of the character being forever changed by their experience. The plot was more mystery or coming-of-age than romance, the characters more interested in staying not-dead or not-possessed than in making sure the reader knew they were strong and sexy, yet vulnerable too. The characters were also often quite pissed off about being ripped from their every day lives and forced to do fantasy type things, like slay monsters or talk to spirit animals, or move to a different plane through music. This isn’t to say that nothing written back then (or nothing I read) had paranormal creatures who had romances with humans - The Skin Trade by George R R Martin is an excellent example. That one sure scared the shit out of me.

And here’s the part of this essay where I use clunky and inelegant language in an attempt to say how I truly feel, end up sounding like an idiot, and possibly piss a bunch of folks off. Ya’ll ready for some epically inelegant language?

So much of the urban fantasy I see when I go to Barnes and Noble these days seems like a fashion spread for really tight pants, anorexia, and neat tattoos. A stupid reason to be sure, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say the cover art on a lot of these books is a major turn off to me. Judging a book by the cover? Yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing, and I already said it was stupid.

I think I know what they’re attempting to do with that cover art. I could be 100% wrong, but I think they’re trying to tell me that this book features a strong female main character. See how strong she is? I know she’s strong because her back is arched, she’s really skinny, she’s showing me her butt and or midriff, she’s got some super hawt tattoos, and she’s probably holding a weapon at a really weird angle too. My gut reaction is that someone feels it’s very, very important that I know right away how ravishingly beautiful and sexy this character is, and that there aren’t any other attributes about her or the story than they’d like to convey to me via the cover art. She’s hot and sexy, and that should be enough for me, right? Umm... what?

Someone’s brilliant concept of “how to get someone to pick up this book” completely and utterly backfired on me.

Yes, I’m aware of the stupidity of judging a book by it’s cover. but hey, the first thing that caught my interest for the Hurley and the Bledsoe was the cover art, so it goes both ways.

I’m an equal opportunist - I don’t give a shit what the character’s gender is or if the person is attractive or not, or what gender the person on the cover is. I want a character who shouts from the cover art “spend 300 pages with me because I’m fascinating and I’ll change your life”, not one shouts “spend 300 pages with me because I look better in tight pants than you do”.

This is very difficult for me to explain, and no matter the words I use, I feel like I’m sounding like some shithead who wants to go back in time to when women weren’t strong characters in books, women writers couldn’t get contracts, and publishers didn’t want to work with women, and basically, women’s lives sucked like you can’t believe. I don’t mean to sound like that. remember what I said about clunky and inelegant language? Good thing I’m not really using these ovaries, they seem to be defective. Not enough feminism in there, also, not enough elegant words.

Am I knocking down an entire subgenre because of it’s cover art? A little bit. Does the author have any control over the cover art? Usually not. I’ll agree whole heartedly with anyone who says “but that’s stupid!”. Maybe deep down I’m just jealous of all those skinny babes who can eat all the carbs they want and never get fat. Maybe I’m scared of having to face my own insecurities. Would I read more UF if the cover art was different? Maybe, but maybe not. I prefer my fantasy much, much darker than a lot of UF goes. Wow, repression and insecurities! it’s a winning combo! Or not.

This isn’t to say I’m a total UF hater. I recently fell head over heels in love with Stina Leicht’s Of Blood and Honey (and it’s sequel And Blue Skies from Pain) and Alex Bledsoe’s The Hum and the Shiver. Both feature the expected trappings of urban fantasy - secrets hidden in plain sight, ancient mythos, a hidden world of non-humans, and doomed romances. The characters are brave, flawed, face destruction if their secrets are made public, and willing to do what needs doing even when afraid. The intriguing cover art didn’t hurt either.

It’s completely possible those two books spoiled me rotten when it comes to UF.

Urban fantasy is like every other genre and subgenre - there are people who love it, and people like me who aren’t so keen on it in large doses but still find the occasional title to enjoy. The way those books fly off the shelves at the bookstore, me preferring other types of books isn’t hurting their sales one bit.

Please visit the Little Red Reviewer and follow her on Twitter @redhead5318 for more reviews and insights of the sci-fi and fantasy community.

She also organized one of the more interesting projects I've seen around known as the Bookstore Bookblogger Connection. Through it she helps give online reviews a voice outside of the internet, while at the same time helping bookstores promote novels they're trying to sell. For more information about all that it entails, please read this description. It's very much a worthwhile project, so hope it succeeds in its endeavor.


  1. Hey RH

    Excellent post & that cover photo shoot by Jim Hines really nails the issue on its head. Not only do these covers look ridiculous, they often portray a different slide to the story inside.

    Some UF books do benefit from such covers as PNR readers readily pick them up but for readers genuinely interested in reading good UF. This is just one in the litany of points against it.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this subgenre :)


    1. New trend in UF cover art: totally ripped dudes with their heads cut off. Meh.

      the books do sell like hotcakes, to mostly the PNR crowd, so more power to 'em. the PNR readers are happy, and the publishers and authors are making sales. I'm just not that into PNR. like, at all.

      that's the plus about e-books - no cover art to worry about or get all worked up about.

  2. I have to agree that most UF covers are somewhat ridiculous and in no way inform a potential reader. I enjoy the genre, and there have been several instances where I looked past the cheesy cover if the premise caught my attention, then discovered that the protagonist is nothing like the half-nekkid lady in the artwork.

    I don't know if it will change publisher's minds about sticking to this type of smexy cover, but it can't hurt to remind them that not everyone is attracted to it. No wonder people can barely distinguish between UF and PNR anymore. All you have to do is add a shirtless man and the one turns into the other.

    On that note, it's also interesting that UF with male protagonists often use art with a similar tone to those with females. The guy is in a dramatic pose, looking all dark and serious, and brandishing a weapon of some kind. Only he gets to be fully clothed. Doesn't seem fair.

    Great post. Cheers!

    1. thanks! Smexy, I love that word.

      I sound like such a conservative nun with my railing against super hottie cover art, and I really don't mean it that way. tough to describe, you know?

      PNR really does sell like crazy, people who enjoy it, they really, really enjoy it. so maybe the pubs are making a smart move, visually blending UF and PNR, it's getting the PNR fans to buy more stuff. that's also a little sad. but deep down, this is a business, right?

  3. I personally don't care much about the sexiness of covers (that said, you'll never see me carrying a book cover with a shirtless man flexing his muscles)... So, it goes in reverse to me.

    My problem with covers is how they often misrepresent what is inside novel. For example, Mind Games by Carolyn Crane has the main character in the cover carrying a knife. I don't think that character carries a knife in the full series, so it's mind-boggling to me as to why the marketing department would place a knife in her hands. It's completely unneeded. It comes off to me as lazy marketing, we can't come up with a good cover, so we'll just add a knife here so we can scream at the target market "Look here, this is urban fantasy!".

    The sad part of it, is that it leads the very urban fantasy audience, and it's the authors that end up paying for it because it sets up false expectations, and I think there's nothing worse than those sorts of situations.

    I found curious the insecurities angle, and together with Sarah's post from 2 weeks ago, it's painting quite the picture about how some readers feel about women presentation in the UF novels and how they can personally identify with them, and how they feel they represent them.

    1. "we can't come up with a good cover, so we'll just add a knife here so we can scream at the target market "Look here, this is urban fantasy!".

      I think in many cases that is exactly what is going on. the marketing dept is putting the cover on the book that they think will get the most people to pick the thing up. and too true, about what happens when someone has false expectations.

      regarding insecurities, leave it to you to get me to lay my soul bare! ;)

      i don't think I cared so much about representations or identifying with characters when I was younger. I must be getting old, because it seems to really matter now.

  4. Well, I think I was involved in a similar discussion not long ago about cover art. It pisses me off when I'm reading a book and, for example, the girl in the story is clearly not the girl on the cover. Why? Sometimes I wonder if the person producing the cover art read the book or not because it seems the simplest explanation.
    And, although I actually quite like urban fantasy it would be a nice refreshing change if the kick ass lead female wasn't perfect! I mean do they all have to be sexy, gorgeous, super ninja quick, - probably the best/fastest/most kick ass person around (even though they've probably only just discovered their talents - oh, and did I mention probably the long lost princess of some ancient race almost on the brink of extinction).
    Just why? Why not kick ass but butt ugly - I mean, come on, even a broken nose! Nope, cute little noses, eat ice cream and junk food as though it's going out of fashion and make an oily stain covered t-shirt look like a slinky number. Ha! I'm not ranting though (really I'm not). Just enjoying myself!
    Thanks for that.
    Lynn :D

    1. depending on the book, it may not even be finished when the cover art is commissioned. the cover artist is probably given some plot points, and what the author or pub wants or doesn't want.

      I got into a short discussion on white-washing with an author (who very tactfully changed the subject), and on thin-washing with another author (who said the photographer found the largest model he could find, and she was a size 6)

      hmm, maybe that's what annoys me. I need my heroes to be flawed. very, very flawed. if they are perfect, not even a broken nose, it's boring. and keep on enjoying yourself, this is fun! :D

    2. You know, in some regard I have to wonder if the lack of flawed heroes in Urban Fantasy might be one of the biggest misconceptions out there about the subgenre, and I think the covers have something to do with it.

      I think also part of it, is that no matter the character, for some reason or another they become surrounded by men that desire them (talking about female characters here of course).

    3. and when the romance feels contrived, that is the worst.

      Epic fantasy tends to have a lot of flawed heroes and antiheroes, and you know I love me an antihero. I wonder if authors feel more comfortable giving a male character a terrible horrible past, than a female character? Can you imagine a book like Prince of Thorns having been written as Princess of Thorns?

    4. That's the thing, if there's one thing that UF banks on, it's on creating characters with shitty up-bringing.

      As for anti-heroes, I wonder about female characters that could fit. The closest I can think of might by Marla Mason by T.A. Pratt.

      But many female characters have a shitty attitude, so they're almost there, but not quite over the line.

      Something to think about certainly :)

  5. I want a character who shouts from the cover art “spend 300 pages with me because I’m fascinating and I’ll change your life”, not one shouts “spend 300 pages with me because I look better in tight pants than you do”.

    :laugh: Indeed. As has been pointed out, Jim Hines has mocked this mercilessly. And its true. I remember when the "Tramp stamp" was on every UF cover out there. It was a plague. It seems to have lightened up, some...

    1. Hines is mocking for sure, but the cover art is a serious issue. the cover art is getting more varied, so that's a plus. I don't think any of this would be an issue for me if I was into PNR.

  6. I keep trying to get my husband to read some of the really good UF out there, but those hawt chick covers make him run the other way... It's too bad *sigh*

    Need more covers like the one's for Myke Cole's series!

  7. have you read The Hum and The Shiver, by Alex Bledsoe? if you like Charles deLint, you'll love it, and your other half won't be weirded out by the cover art.

    or get him an e-reader, he'll never even see the cover art!

  8. I tended to shy away from UF because of the covers, but I think it's starting to turn now, slowly, but it is turning. Overall these days a lot of the UF covers say more to me about the book than the ubiquitous hooded man that seems to be on every other epic fantasy out there.

  9. In other words, "this dumb cover makes the book look boring and I'm not going to buy it.". What are you apologizing for?

  10. Hi Andrea, I agree with what you have to say. These naked torsos actually turn me off from reading their books as I automatically think they are Paranormal Romance disguised as Urban Fantasy. And usually the cover has nothing to do with the content of the book too.

  11. Your thoughts on UF covers are similar to the way I feel about the covers on books in the teen section. There is a similarity across the board of these dark, brooding covers. You'd swear by the cover art that every book for teens was the same story and that the story wasn't going to be pleasant. But hey, that is adolescence, eh?

    UF does suffer, I believe, by the fact that publishers across the board seem to want to hold to the same cover standards. Some of the covers are excellent work, those by Chris McGrath come to mind, where the men and women are attractive but generally well covered and not weirdly posed, and some make no sense, like the Three Days to Dead cover you picture above. She'd be One Day to Dead with that knife on her leg that way. The wrong move and she'd several an artery and be out for the count.

    UF certainly isn't my favorite genre, but I cannot honestly say I dislike it because there are always exceptions. Jim Butcher comes to mind, as does Kat Richardson's series. But it isn't the first thing I go into the store to find and the sameness of the covers frustrates me from a creativity standpoint.

  12. "I want a character who shouts from the cover art “spend 300 pages with me because I’m fascinating and I’ll change your life”, not one shouts “spend 300 pages with me because I look better in tight pants than you do”. "

    YES! So completely yes!

    Modern urban fantasy has pretty much become synonymous with paranormal romance, and I have almost no interest in that. That's my biggest problem with it. I don't like romance novels, so there's no reason why I'd like them more just because they have shapeshifters and vampires boinking the sexy female on the cover.

  13. Body armor. Just put the character on the cover in body armor. If I'm going to be battling werewolves, vamps, & the fey on asphalt, I want body armor.

    Don't apologize for passing up a book because of ridiculous images.

  14. UF seems to be another genre that has suffered from oversaturation. I really liked it when I first discovered it, because I only read the decent stuff. I love Ilona Andrews and Patricia Briggs because they write good books and generally the covers aren't that ridiculous (though Mercy certainly has some ridiculous tattoos). Since then, I have been getting sick of reading UF review books because they are all the freaking same and they are boring and horrible. I have switched back to epic fantasy and sci-fi, since those genres aren't as horribly saturated right now. Ebb and flow and all that ;-).

  15. Covers are iconic. With just a glance, most of us can tell if a book is a romance, fantasy, or woman's mainstream novel. So, we are stuck with the covers. Many in romance who have despised the clinch covers with their half-naked women for almost thirty years have learned to shrug, hide the cover, and read it anyway.

    If the cover bothers you enough that you refuse to read perfectly good books, that's your loss.

    Part of the problem here is that the term urban fantasy didn't change when a different kind of book entered the market. I've posted below my article on the history of urban fantasy to explain this.

    In the late 1980's, a number of fantasy authors began to write about the various creatures and tropes of fantasy like elves, other supernatural beings, and magic in contemporary times in big cities rather than the past or in mythic places.

    The Encyclopedia of Fantasy defined these urban fantasy novels as “texts where fantasy and the mundane world interact, intersect, and interweave throughout a tale which is significantly about a real city.”

    Authors like Charles de Lint created stories where the real urban world and Fairy met. Other writers during this period include Emma Bull and Mercedes Lackey.

    The heart of these stories are folkloric in tone with a sense of a fairy tale being retold in modern terms. The language of the novels is lyrical and poetic, and events from the main characters' point of view have a sense that something may or may not be happening.

    This type of urban fantasy is now called traditional urban fantasy, and a current writer is Neil Gaiman.

    In the late 1990's and beyond, a different type of urban fantasy began to appear. These novels had their basis, not from fairy tales, but from the horror and mystery genres. Other media influences included the TV show, BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.

    These contemporary urban fantasies were popularized by Laurell K. Hamilton with her Anita Blake novels. They have a strong protagonist who has some form of supernatural power.

    The narrative is usually in first person, and the world has a strong sense of good and evil.

    The real world is the gritty reality of the big city where the natural and the supernatural mix, often to disastrous results. The main character usually has a probable sexual and crime-solving partner who is supernatural and a forbidden sexual partner either by society or by her/his own standards.

    The main driving plot is a mystery which the main character must solve to prevent chaos, whether it be preventing bad supernaturals from harming humans or some form of disaster from occurring.

    Most often, the main character is in law enforcement-- a police officer, a private detective, or a bounty hunter.

  16. My friends and I have a game, we go to the Scifi/fantasy section of our bookstore and stop a random point along the shelf. We then find at least leather clad vixen on each shelf within arms reach. We pick up each one to tick off the boxes. Member of super secret magic police/organization, check. Having trouble with her super powerful super natural boyfriend, check. Can she figure things out before she loses it all, check and mate.

    I have never been at a bookstore and failed at this game. I hope your article makes a difference.

  17. Honestly? I like the stupid covers. Nine times out of ten a cover with a half dressed man or woman on it means it's a paranormal romance and not urban fantasy - thus making such books much easier for me to avoid.

  18. Great post! To me, urban fantasy is fantasy set in a city, like China Mieville's novels. I hate that the term - which I find quite useful - has basically been usurped by PNR (which I loathe).

    I wrote a similar rant about YA covers - skinny, pretty (when their heads aren't cut off) white girls wearing ballgowns, floating underwater, running from the viewer, letting their hair blow in the wind, or some combination of those. Do those even reflect the story in any way?

    But as with these PNR covers, they're marketing tools. They are attractive to the majority of readers who like those books, and those readers can tell at a glance that this is a book for them.

    Which I think says something sad about readers and publishers. What would happen if the covers featured a person of a different colour or race, someone who wasn't so sleek and pretty, didn't have long flowing hair, etc.?

    Personally, I tend to avoid cliche covers in any genre. They say to me that these books don't offer anything inventive or unconventional; they're just cashing in on whatever is popular. And that is exactly what some people want, but I also know that authors can't choose their covers and that covers are chosen to sell books rather than portray the story within. Some books deserve better, so sometimes I make the effort to look beyond the lame-ass cover and see if the story might be interesting.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...