Thursday, June 19, 2014

Covers, part 2: The best recent book covers in adult historical fiction set in medieval times

While thinking about book covers, I decided to survey recent book covers in adult historical fiction. I wanted to see which ones most caught my eye and try to figure out what made them good covers.

I went through more than 130 recent covers by searching on Amazon and Barnes and Noble using keywords such as "historical fiction" plus "Anglo Saxon", "medieval", or "Viking". I was surprised to find so many recent books depicting the early medieval years; when I searched about two years ago, I found relatively few works of fiction based in Anglo-Saxon times. I noticed that most covers for such works of historical fiction fell in one or more of the following categories:

Person – drawing
Person – photo
Animal – photo or naturalistic drawing
Object – photo  or realistic drawing
Symbol or abstract representation (of person, animal, object, idea, etc)
Building or other built structures in the landscape
Natural landscape

I will show the recent book covers I liked best in each of these categories. There were more good covers than what I include in this posting; a few more good covers will be discussed in my next posting (part 3 on book covers). The covers highlighted in these postings are ones that I like, but they don’t necessarily follow all the standard “rules” of good cover design. For example, some articles suggest that pictures of persons should be avoided on book covers unless the face is hidden. The face can be obscured when the person is facing away, when only part of the body such as the torso is shown, when the figure is shown in silhouette, or when hoods or other articles of clothing hide the face. However, as mentioned in part 1 on book covers, I like to see people with faces on book covers, so I have included some examples here.

I will add a few comments here on each book cover, and my next posting (part 3) will go into more detail on some attributes that I think make certain book covers more desirable. Most of my examples of excellent covers in this posting are from 2013 or 2014. In this post, I am only commenting on the covers; at this time, I have not yet read most of these recent books with the best covers. I have read two of them – you can find my reviews for Edwin: High King of Britain and God’s Daughter on this blog.

Person – drawing

Badon Hill by F J Atkinson (2014)
The nicely composed image shows a battle-weary warrior against a battleground scene. The main image is detailed enough that I am not sure whether it is a drawing or a photograph.

The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath (2013)
This image is from the Bayeux Tapestry. Sometimes medieval-era illustrations can appear flat and stilted to modern eyes, but the colors and fonts on the cover frame an attractive presentation of this ancient image that helped inspire the book.

1066 The Healer by John Wright (2008)
This book is older than the other books in this posting but is included here due to my special interest in medieval healers. The cover is simple but appealing with the color illustration and the title font that resembles uncial writing.

Person – photo

God's Daughter by Heather Day Gilbert (2013)
I think that photos are incredibly difficult to use well on historical fiction book covers depicting long-ago times. Clothing styles, hair styles, and make-up are very different today from in the distant past. Attempts to replicate older styles often result in a model who resembles a first-timer at a SCA event. However, when a cover designer finds the right model and the right background, the results can be stunning, as is the case for the God’s Daughter cover image. The model conveys just the right balance of beauty and toughness that corresponds very well with the character of Gudrid as described in the novel, and the water in the background also goes well with the setting of the book.

Lady Danger by Glynnis Campbell (2012)
One disadvantage of using stock photos for cover images is that someone else may create a cover using the same model. The model is facing in opposite directions on the covers of God’s Daughter and Lady Danger; both books came up in Amazon searches using the keywords I have indicated.

The Viking's Daughter by Marti Talbott (2013)
This cover appears to feature the same model as God’s Daughter and Lady Danger, but in a different pose so the similarity is not as obvious as for the other two books.

The Northumbrian Saga by A. H. Gray (2013)
This book did not turn up in my keyword searches; I came across it while searching for more information about Edoardo Albert’s book Edwin. I am glad I found this book, with its striking and luminous cover image of a veiled model against a background of Bamburgh Castle along the Northumbrian coast. I’m not sure that either the deep black dye of her dress or sheer veils with such fine (machined-quality) stitching would have been found in 9th century Northumbria, but some have argued that fine silk textiles may have been widely available in late Anglo-Saxon England, so I will not count this image as a definite anachronism! The way in which the veil is draped is consistent with that shown in some Anglo-Saxon drawings.

The Winter Warrior by James Wilde (2013)
The horse and rider going through the snow provide an excellent representation of the title of the book. The image makes me wonder where he is traveling in such weather.

Animal – photo or naturalistic drawing

Shadow of the Raven by Millie Thom (2014)
The raven silhouette is the component that first caught my eye in this image, but it blends in nicely with the photo of the longship on the water.

A Swarming of Bees by Theresa Tomlinson (2013)
One main bee image and several lighter ones are perched on a honeycomb background that resembles the vellum used in manuscripts of the time. Bees were recognized as important in Anglo-Saxon times. Bees make appearances in an Old English metrical charm, in the famed name of Beowulf, and in the Exeter book riddles (according to some widely accepted solutions). Bees also made the honey for mead, an essential beverage at social gatherings of the time. At a time when refined sugars were not available, honey was highly valued as a sweetener and it was also included in many medicinal remedies.

Object – photo or realistic drawing

Death of Kings by Bernard Cornwell (2012)
I tend not to be drawn as much to covers depicting objects as to book covers with pictures of people or animals. But the crown on the Cornwall cover is visually compelling. When I saw the title and the image, I immediately started to wonder whose head should be wearing the crown.

The Sutton Hoo helmet and other Anglo-Saxon helmets appear on many book covers about Anglo-Saxon times. In Jim Gardener’s artwork for Wall’s cover, a skull is wearing an Anglo-Saxon style helmet. The image made me curious about why the helmet would be on a skull and not on a living person. Along with the bare trees and ravens at the base of the picture, the overall effect is somewhat eerie. It definitely demands attention and makes you want to find out more about the book and the person who wore the helmet during his life. The author and cover designer elected to have only the image with no text on the book cover. I can understand why they would want to let the image have its maximal effect, but I prefer the usual practice of listing the title and author on the front cover. I considered placing this cover under the next category (symbol or abstract representation), but the helmet is drawn with a realistic level of detail so I left it under the “object” category.

Symbol or abstract representation

Edwin: High King of Britain by Edoardo Albert (2014). Also available here.
The boar on the cover resembles the boar crests on the Pioneer and Benty Grange Anglo-Saxon helmets. Such helm ornaments are described in Beowulf, and Albert places boar crests on the helmets worn by Edwin’s followers.

Boar crest from the seventh-century Pioneer helmet. From the original photo by Nathandbeal, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Boar crest from the Benty Grange helmet, made around 650 AD. Photo copyrighted by Museums Sheffield and used with permission. More information on the helmet and its boar image is available at the Museums Sheffield website (search for “Benty Grange helmet” or for Accession number J93.1189) or at the I Dig Sheffield site for the helmet or the boar ornament.

The boar on the Edwin cover would be at home on a medieval illuminated manuscript. The combination of the boar image with the uncial-like font of the word “Edwin” provides a nice seventh-century feel that is still attractive today.

Lord of the Wolf by Andrew Cook (2014)
The dragon in this image is stylized in a manner typical of Anglo-Saxon design, and the page looks like vellum. In combination with the font, the overall effect evokes a page from a medieval manuscript.

Building or other built structures in the landscape

The Changeling by Sile Rice (2011)

The Loom of Battle by Sile Rice (2011)
These covers are very simple, with a color wash over what appears to be a photo from West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village or a similar reconstructed Anglo-Saxon site. There is nothing fancy to catch the eye, but somehow I kept going back to look at these images when they were among many covers on a page of search results.

The Changeling and The Loom of Battle comprise an expanded version of The Saxon Tapestry, first published in 1991. Although the new covers are attractive and certainly do their job of drawing the potential reader in, I prefer the old covers from Hodder and Stoughton:

Cover from the hardback edition of The Saxon Tapestry, Hodder and Stoughton  (first published in 1991 in the UK)
Cover from the paperback edition of The Saxon Tapestry, Hodder and Stoughton  (first published in 1991 in the UK)

Natural landscape

Natural landscapes play in important role in many covers as backdrop for a person or other feature. For beautiful examples, see the covers above for The Northumbrian Saga, God’s Daughter, and Shadow of the Raven. Although I enjoy looking at pictures of natural landscapes, I do not ordinarily think a landscape alone serves as an effective cover. However, the peaceful shoreline image on the cover of Place of Repose nicely sets the tone expected in a novel with that name. In the acknowledgements, Tiernan mentions that photographer Adam Ward captured the image of light on Lindisfarne, an appropriate place for a novel honoring the final journey of St. Cuthbert.

My next post (part 3 on covers) looks more fully at the usual features of good book covers. In that post I will list about ten more excellent book covers in medieval historical fiction.

Do you agree with my list of the best recent book covers in this genre? Or do you have other favorites?


  1. Great post, and those are some amazing covers! Yes, the problem with stock models is that many can use them! Also, it's tricky to "remove" all the makeup in some of those shots and get an authentic look. But I'm so glad you liked God's Daughter. I particularly like that The Winter Warrior cover.

    1. It's really not the end of the world if the same stock photo gets re-used. The other book appears to be more romance with a bit of history, while yours is more of a straight historical fiction faithful to the Icelandic sagas. I only found the match because I was looking closely at dozens of recent covers!

      I saw so many photo-based covers in which the model looked way too modern to pass as coming from the Middle Ages, but your cover proves that a photo can be used very effectively, with a careful choice of the model. It must have taken you a long time to find just the right image!

  2. Thank you for including The Handfasted Wife. I also found other books to read. A good cover really persuades a reader to pick up a book.

    1. I've had A Swarming of Bees waiting for me on my tablet for a while now, and this cover exercise has given me more titles to add to the "must read" list, including yours. These days not many authors use actual art from the Middle Ages on their fiction covers, but the Bayeux Tapestry image is so compelling that I am glad you did!

  3. Thanks from me too! I had a lot of fun looking at everyone's covers and finding some more reading material. Lots of inspiration here.

  4. Your book is definitely on my too-read list as well. The cover is beautiful - a perfect match of background and model.

  5. Many thanks for including the cover of "In the Wake of the Comet Star". I decided to stick with the image as it stood without any text because it forms a sort of pictogram for the story, needing no more textual details, though I acknowledge it is unconventional! The skull/helmet is of course our old friend "King Death", a constant companion throughout the medieval period, but especially during the reign of King Ethelred "the unready", the St Brice's day massacre, and the Danish conquest of England, which are the central themes of the story. The eponymous comet speaks for itself, and I suppose the entire image is designed to depict the death of Anglo-Saxon England. But, fear not readers, all is not doom and gloom, and it is ultimately a redemptive and heart-warming tale!