Judging a cover by its book

Earlier this year, I started reading Jeffe Kennedy’s Twelve Kingdoms trilogy. Each book is narrated by one of three sisters. I enjoyed The Mark of the Tala and The Tears of the Rose, and I finally have time to read The Talon of the Hawk, told by oldest sister Ursula. Seen through the eyes of her sisters, Princess Ursula has become my favorite character, so I’ve been looking forward to reading “her” book. Ursula is 30 years old, and in addition to being a mature adult, she’s not model-pretty either:

  • “I suppose I’m lucky not to be the oldest and least beautiful. Ursula, however, is our father’s heir and couldn’t care a whit for things such as prettiness.” (Andi, The Mark of the Tala, p.1)
  • “Ursula looked fine, too—make no mistake. Her ladies wouldn’t allow otherwise. She cleaned up well when she went to the trouble. But Ursula’s beauty is in the clear, firm lines of her jaw, the sharp eyes that miss nothing, her incisive intelligence.” (The Mark of the Tala, p.3)
  • “The eldest and heir to the High Throne of the Twelve Kingdoms, she looked more gaunt than ever. In the past, some might have called her passably attractive, in her hard-edged way, but not at this moment.” (Amelia, The Tears of the Rose, p.2)

Until I’ve read the book, I won’t know how Ursula describes herself, but according to the plot summary, Ursula is “a girl grudgingly honed to leadership, not beauty, to bear the sword and honor of the king.” After two books and that plot summary, I picture Ursula as a woman in her early thirties, thin but muscular, fairly ordinary overall in attractiveness, with a few strong features such as her eyes and her jawline, and who’s not inclined to fuss over her appearance unless her ladies (or her father) demand it.

Then I saw the cover:

Book cover: The Talon of the Hawk

I’m annoyed at myself for not hating it. If I’d seen this before reading the first two novels, I’d be interested in at least reading the plot summary to this one, which is what cover art is for. My reaction is exactly why publishers design covers like this. But this Ursula doesn’t look like someone who appears at formal court functions wearing her sword over her dress so that her men will see her as a soldier before they see her as a woman.

Now when the protagonist really is beautiful, I have no arguments with a cover that reflects that. Consider Ursula’s sister Amelia:

“The youngest, breathtakingly beautiful. They called her Glorianna’s avatar when she was born and started composing sonnets to her by the time she turned twelve. Hair the color of sunrise, eyes like twilight, skin like moonbeams.” (The Mark of the Tala, p.2)

And here’s what the publisher came up with:

Book cover: The Tears of the Rose

In The Tears of the Rose, Amelia is 20 years old. Her youth (really, her immaturity) and beauty are an important part of her story, and the cover art for The Tears of the Rose works well with that. But the cover art on The Talon of the Hawk makes it so that Amelia and Ursula look equally gorgeous and close in age, not ten years apart.

This is giving me cognitive dissonance. It’s like the author is saying Here’s my story about a woman who’s a competent, average-looking adult while the cover is saying Buy this book about a young, beautiful, sexy warrior princess. I’m not great at visualizing, and now when I read the book, no matter how many times Kennedy describes Ursula as average-looking and probably wearing something practical for battle, the image of a pretty woman in a studded tube top is what’s going to pop into my head. Come on, even Amelia’s gown has spaghetti straps!

This is a fairly dismal trend in publishing. Jane Ellsworth’s major problem in Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is that although she’s intelligent and magically gifted, she’s considered too plain to attract a husband. The cover depicts an ethereal young woman who would probably have no trouble getting married in Kowal’s alternative England. The original American cover for Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, a book about an African-American girl, featured a photo of a white girl. (After protest, the cover was changed.) But it’s demoralizing to realize that fantasy fiction about women older than 25 is deemed unlikely to sell unless it’s disguised. Being well over 25 myself, I’ve been looking for books with older heroines. Perhaps I could find them in general fiction or women’s fiction, but my favorite genre is fantasy. I had been thinking that maybe they just didn’t exist. Now I’m wondering if those books are out there—good!—but hidden behind deceptive covers. And how will I find them if that’s the case?

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