What kind of book is this? Judging a book by its cover

So, there I was, skimming through a list of fantasy novels due to be released this year, and here is one that caught my eye:

Since the cover presents both an image and a title, we’re really judging the book by both simultaneously. What do you think? I think that including the word “anguish” on the cover is HIGHLY indicative of the novel’s tone, or if it isn’t, whoops! Because I definitely peg this novel according to this word choice. I peg it as AVOID AVOID AVOID.

What else contributes to this impression of NOT FOR ME?

The dark colors. This is a beautiful cover, it’s an intriguing cover, a good-looking cover, but it’s dark dark dark. Either this novel is grimdark or it’s going to be a slog through a dystopian setting to get to a halfway tolerable ending. That’s what the cover suggests to me. “Anarchy” is not carrying a lot of weight one way or another, not for me. That’s a fairly neutral word, for me. “Anguish” is anything but neutral. “Children of” is just pretty generic as far as the structure of a fantasy title. Oh, I see that this author has “Children of” in all her titles for this series. Children of Blood and Bone. Children of Virtue and Vengeance. And now Children of Anguish and Anarchy. This is the third book of the series. It’s the final book, says the description.

This is a bestselling series, it turns out. Starred reviews from every direction. Hmm. Looks like the first book has 23,000 ratings, 4.6 star average.

Here’s the description:

They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.

Now we rise.


Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls. But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope. Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.

Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers and her growing feelings for an enemy.

I mean, this sounds … sort of promising … except I am so suspicious of the tone implied by the dark covers (all three covers are dark) and the emphasis on death, vengeance, and anguish, that I am very hesitant to try the first book. By “hesitant,” I mean I won’t look at it seriously UNLESS one of you here says, “Oh, no, that’s all very misleading, the book is fantastic, you should definitely try it!” If that happens, then sure. Otherwise, no.

However, since it’s a bestselling fantasy, let’s take a look at the first page of the first book and compare it to the other first pages we’ve looked at recently. The first bit is a prologue, very short, and then the real story begins after the ——– break.

***

I try not to think of her.

But when I do, I think of rice.

When Mama was around, the hut always smelled of jollof rice.

I think about the way her dark skin glowed like the summer sun, the way her smile made Baba come alive. The way her white hair fuzzed and coiled, an untamed crown that breathed and thrived.

I hear the myths she would tell me at night. Tzain’s laughter when they played agbon in the park. Baba’s cries as the soldiers wrapped a chain around her neck. Her screams as they dragged her into the dark.

The incantations that spewed from her mouth like lava. The magic of death that led her astray.

I think about the way her corpse hung from that tree.

I think about the king who took her away.

———————————————————

Pick me.

It’s all I can do not to scream. I dig my nails into the marula oak of my staff and squeeze to keep from fidgeting. Beads of sweat drip down my back, but I can’t tell if it’s from dawn’s early heat or from my heart slamming against my chest. Moon after moon I’ve been passed over.

Today can’t be the same.

I tuck a lock of snow-white hair behind my ear and do my best to sit still. As always, Mama Agba makes the selection grueling, staring at each girl just long enough to make us squirm.

Her brows knit in concentration, deepening the creases in her shaved head. With her dark brown skin and muted kaftan, Mama Agba looks like any other elder in the village. You would never guess a woman her age could be so lethal.

***

What do you think?

I think I’m tired of seeing almost every single sentence broken into its own special paragraph. This seems to be in vogue. I wasn’t aware of that and now I’m tired of it. That didn’t take long. I just think this thing about one-sentence paragraphs gets old in a hurry. Also, I don’t like that sentence about spewing like lava. I suppose that’s meant to indicate that the protagonist has internalized hatred of magic from the conquerors of her people. To me, this seems thoroughly jarring given the surrounding sentences.

The actual story then begins in a way that looks pretty generic. However, overall, not bad.

Here is a comment from a three-star review (I specifically went straight to the three-star reviews): “Each character has been traumatized, and they re-live the moments of brutality in their dreams and inner voices. Repeatedly. Constantly. Over and over, to the point where both Zélie and Amari would likely be diagnosed with PTSD in real life. … The obsessive single-mindedness of each of these characters is so similar that it’s hard to keep track of which point of view we’re reading at any given time. The tone is uniformly overwrought, with the characters experiencing primarily extreme emotions of fear and hatred, with extra helpings of distrust and betrayal. Adeyemi does attempt to bring a couple lighter moments of respite later on, and even some romance, but both are thoroughly unconvincing, since the primary mission of the book seems to be to convey just how hopelessly grim and harrowing life is with the relentless violence and even torture.”

And there we go: dark cover image, “anguish,” and a single review that indicates both cover and title accurately represent the tone. Therefore, nope, not for me. However, obviously all the above appeals to a lot of readers; hence the bestseller status and the 4.6 average star rating. And that is what the title and cover are supposed to do — indicate tone and genre to the reader, so that those who will love the book pick it up and those who won’t skim on past it and pick up something more to their taste. Therefore, I’d call this a successful title and cover.

I also find this interesting just because of the juxtaposition with the book I recently reviewed here, a darkish fantasy called Year of the Reaper by Makiia Lucier.

What is the difference? Why did I feel drawn to read this book, while the first cover strikes me as suggesting something too grim for me? Part of it has to be the pale fog in the background. This lightens the overall tone of the cover, even though it’s also emphasizing dark colors. Another is possibly the artist’s decision to move the figure farther away from the viewer. The Children of Anguish one is really good. I like it a lot. I wonder, though, if centering the face implies, to me, less action and more angst? Giving the drow (or, fine, the statue) figure a mace does seem to me to imply more action.

I do suspect that the Reaper cover’s resemblance to Michael Whelan covers is also making this cover very appealing to me. I’m not sure whether anybody else gets a Whelan vibe here? But after going to the linked site and skimming through Whelan artwork, I still do think this cover would fit right in.

Regardless, indicating the tone of the story is definitely the cover’s number-one job. And don’t put “anguish” in the title unless you want to shove away certain readers. But it’s a good choice for making sure that the readers who pick up your book are the ones who may revel in anguish and love it when your characters constantly dwell on grim backstory.

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6 thoughts on “What kind of book is this? Judging a book by its cover”

  1. Blech, I say when confronted with a dark, miserable-looking cover, no matter how beautiful the illustration. I agree – ‘anguish’ in the title indicates that no way am I going to enjoy it. I don’t mind tragic stories occasionally, but that review indicates that the main characters are not going to grow past their trauma, they’re just going to wallow in it. That is not a fun prospect for me as a reader.

  2. I’ve tried to read some books by Adeyemi but didn’t take to them. I don’t remember what the exact issue was, but I never made it beyond the first 50 pages, which is usually an “unlikeable characters” thing for me.

  3. I think I am just becoming a cranky old-timer and can’t get past my instinctive dislike of first person present tense, especially when it’s not used to craft an interesting character voice. Elizabeth Wein uses first-person to great effect in CODE NAME VERITY and ROSE UNDER FIRE, and of course Ryo’s first-person voice is so distinctive from the start in TUYO. But why use first-person if you’re not going to DO something with it?

    (Yes, I know it’s trendy in YA; I just don’t understand why.)

  4. I laughed at “AVOID AVOID AVOID” because it resembled my reaction of “nope nope nope.” Based primarily on the font choice, which screamed “really bad stuff happens in this book” and “look, I’m so dramatic!” Yeah, not interested.

  5. I had to look twice to figure out what was on that first cover, and it put me off as well. The second doesn’t put me off, but doesn’t draw me to pick up the book either. However, I’ve downloaded a sample due to favorable comments here.

    The one sentence paragraphs works ok in the first extract if I read them as someone stopping and starting due to strong emotion such as grief. In the second they work less well. In fact my reaction was boredom.

    On the wallowing in anguish I wonder if this is related to something the Teen brought up recently – a half remembered bit of dialogue from a title-unremembered-story, to the effect of: Character 1) Trauma doesn’t make you strong. All it means is you were hurt. Character 2) But then what’s the point?! It’s not fair!

    There’s a current in the thinking out there that may be based on ‘no pain, no gain’ but I’ve seen it in superhero stories and elsewhere: trauma gets you power(s), makes you strong. What the writers do (the ones I don’t pick up or don’t continue once I see what they’re doing) is not figure out that it isn’t the trauma, it’s how one handles it. And wallowing isn’t how to get strong from it.

  6. Love this analysis! As you said, at least the title and cover were accurate at signposting what’s to come. I recently read Weyward and expected a cozy witchy story from the lovely cover and got grimdark and trauma instead, AVOID AVOID AVOID !

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