“Never judge a book by it’s cover” is perhaps the least-heeded advice to have ever been given. Of course we judge books by their covers. It is, after all, the first impression we get of a book. Sure, the blurb, reviews and recommendations are all important, but a cover is the face of a book, and a good cover will capture the essence of the story within.
Here are five of the best covers to grace grimdark fantasy books. Or, at least, this chump’s opinion on the matter.
King of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
(UK edition, cover art by Jason Chan)
Here’s a grimdark cover that should be immediately recognisable to any grimdark fan. King of Thorns, the second book in the Broken Empire trilogy, has a cover that’s striking and, well, grim.
The most immediately obvious thing about this cover is the contrast of the red against a dark, monochromatic rest of the image. While the focus on a hooded figure may be done a lot in fantasy, I feel that this cover uses it well. Jorg’s relaxed, thoughtful pose contrasts against the destruction around him, and makes one wonder who this charismatic son of a bitch is. The hood also means that Jorg can be featured without presenting a face that might conflict with readers’ mental images of him. The two objects in his hands, the builder’s eye and the dog skull, add to this air of mystery and are little nods to important aspects of the book.
The three covers of the Broken Empire trilogy have great continuity, and King of Thorns is a particular standout. The darker colours and simpler, bolder text of the UK version are just more kick-ass (sorry US version). This is a cover everyone should have on their shelves.
The Court of Broken Knives by Anna Smith Spark
This cover does happen to include another hooded figure, but hey, if it ain’t broke, why fix it? They’re just so damn enigmatic.
The negative space and use of white is what makes this cover so striking. The monochromatic silhouette of hands holding a sword is pumped up by the judicious application of fire, and the scene with the hooded figure nestled inside the first image. There’s a decent amount going on here, but it manages to look clean, simple and attractive.
The Court of Broken Knives is Anna Smith Spark’s debut novel, and at the time of writing, there’s a day or so until its release, but it’s already making waves in the grimdark community. If this gorgeous cover is anything to go by, it looks like it will be damn cool.
The Last Mortal Bond by Brian Staveley
(US edition, cover art by Richard Anderson)
The stylised quality of this cover, combined with the dark greys and blacks streaked with red, make this cover immediately eye-catching. Upon further inspection, it’s even more interesting: the desperation of the two figures in a pool of blood; the fact that the gigantic bird of prey in the background has a fucking riding harness; the hint of fire in the trees in the far background. It all amounts to a desire to read the actual book.
This cover is simply epic, and just screams “there’s a story here”. The other books in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne have cool covers by Richard Anderson too, but this one takes the cake.
A Crown for Cold Silver
(Design by Lauren Panepinto, map illustrator Tim Paul)
A Crown for Cold Silver has a cover that does something completely different to the others on this list. At first glance it appears to just be an interesting blend between blocks of tan and red colour, but closer inspection reveals that the tan top half is actually a map of the story world, ‘The Star’, and the bottom half is a bloody crimson enveloping it, which is a good metaphor for the grimdark events of the story.
What makes is even better is the silhouetted army warring on the border between the red and tan. This cover actually has a lot of detail for something that, at first glance, seems simple. The text is bold and striking, and the contrast between the black and white is aesthetic. The covers for the rest of the Crimson Empire trilogy have a similar composition, but this is the one that started it all.
Promise of Blood
(Design by Lauren Panepinto and photo illustration by Gene Mollica and Michael Frost)
What makes the cover of Promise of Blood so damn cool is the ‘promise’ it makes to subvert traditional expectations of fantasy. A figure in an eighteenth-century style military uniform sits on a throne while a crown lies discarded in a puddle of blood on the steps. This ain’t your average medieval fantasy boys and girls. The idea of a French-style revolution in a fantasy world is conveyed without ever actually being stated. The white text contrasts well against the dark background, and the little red flintlock pistol designs add to the promise of the premise, as does the word ‘powder mage’.
The tagline ‘The age of kings is dead… and I have killed it’ is a perfect match to the image, and just sounds so freaking cool. It’s impossible to not want to read about the character on the throne (Field Marshal Tamas) and the world he inhabits.
Reviews of the books behind those gorgeous covers
You can find reviews of these books on GdM’s and other trusted blogs. Use the links below.