Eye-Catchers: My Favorite Covers from 2011

I haven’t analyzed a cover for a long time (not since Mira Grant’s Feed), but before the first month of 2012 passed I wanted to share with you my favorite covers from 2011 and why I think they work.* My top three are Blackdog by K.V. Johansen (illustration by Raymond Swanland), Embassytown by China Miéville (illustration and design by David Stevenson), and The Hum and the Shiver (photographs by Valentino Sani and Marilyn Angel Wynn). They all have excellent lines to draw the viewer’s eye and serve as compelling introductions to the stories inside.

Blackdog: A Study in Eye Movement

Blackdog by K. V. Johansen

There are a lot of things I love about this cover, but all of it hinges on the spectacular illustration from Raymond Swanland. The color scheme is striking even though it isn’t flashy, because Swanland has a nice contrast between the lights and darks that adds flavor and variety without having to be extreme; the image packs a lot of elements in without feeling busy; Holla-Sayan (the guy in the foreground) is compelling.

But the thing that strikes me the most about this cover is the motion. Everything is moving. The owl is in a dive (as are the other shadowy birds), and that dive moves in the same direction as the ribbons of cloth coming from Attalissa (the girl in the center). The contrast of the bright circle in the center with all the darker elements draws your eye, but then it’s easy for your eye to flow around the rest of the cover elements following the motion lines. Then you get caught up in the intersection where Holla’s hand and his sword meet, you move up to his face, and you get hit head-on with the fact that he’s looking out from the cover. His face is the only element that isn’t synchronized with the upper-right–to–lower-left flow, and because of that it strikes a strong chord.

This cover is a study in the power of eye movement. The movement sucks you in, and the illustration has enough detail to keep you captivated for a while. Definitely long enough to decide you want to buy whatever is behind that cover. (As a nod to whoever did the text, the title color contrasts well with what’s behind it, but harmonizes with the existing illustration. It’s placement also defers to the illustration, which is smart considering how strong the illustration is.)

Embassytown: Room for Imagination

Embassytown by China Miéville

The first think I like about this cover is the color scheme. You can’t get more contrast than between black and white, and red is my favorite accent color. It’s a striking scheme that never seems to get old (for me, at least; I’m sure other people are sick to death of it).

David Stevenson uses the red judiciously: he only uses it for the author name, which is a lightweight font compared to the title typeface, so the red remains an accent, but not the note that stays with you. Where the Blackdog cover had a lot of diagonal motion, this cover is strictly top-to-bottom. The contrast of the black and red (or the black and white, depending on the viewer) draws your attention to the top. Then your eye filters down through the inverted pyramid of the jumbled letters and finally to the city, which is made up of vertical buildings.

The space between the title and the bottom of the cover is the part I like best about this cover. The jumbled letters give you an idea that words are important to the city below. It gives you hints; it gives you an impression of what Embassytown, the city, is like; it gives the city both a glow and a shadow. Those hints and impressions and contrasts are interesting, and they’re ripe for a viewer to start creating a story of their own with the image, a story that will compel them to read.

The Hum and the Shiver: Simple Can Sell

The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

This cover is different than the other two because it relies on two images instead of on a specific illustration (if you’re a self-publisher thinking about a stock-photo cover, take note).  Neither photo would make as compelling a cover alone. The landscape image is full of beautiful color. The yellows and oranges in the sky catch the eye, and they do so all the better because they’re bordered by the unobtrusive blue of the mountains below.

The shape of the mountains draws down in a V that guides the eye to the central figure (the other image). Like the city and the jumbled words of the Embassytown cover, this figure lets you, the viewer, start to tell yourself a story. Here is a woman, partially transparent, holding a stringed instrument. Because she’s nondescript—you can’t really see her face, you don’t know exactly what she’s feeling—you have the freedom to fill in the gaps.

This cover is simple: the contrasting colors draw your eye, and the solo, nondescript figure lets you tell yourself a story. It’s powerful from an emotional sense, and it sets a beautiful tone for the book inside.


*Remember, I’m not extensively skilled as a designer. I’m decent with typography and word-based design, but not stellar when it comes to creation. I leave the illustration and design to my more able colleagues. You don’t have to be able to create awesome stuff to love awesome stuff and to be able to say why.

Villainous Characterization Techniques

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post about humanizing your book’s villains. Today I’m going to analyze some humanized villains and talk about the specific traits and techniques that make those villains more human and interesting—I’ll even show a humanizing element that can save your villain from being completely flat. Because a villain’s characterization spans entire books and series, let me preface this post by saying it’s probably full of spoilers. I’ll keep them as mild as I can, but if you want any of these books to remain completely unspoiled, avoid reading that book’s section and skip to the technique summary at the end.

Lord of the Rings: Gollum

Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. TolkeinI’ll start with the book most of you won’t mind having spoiled. Gollum from Lord of the Rings is the most humanized villain in the trilogy (some might even argue that he’s not much of an antagonist because he helps so much). J.R.R. Tolkein humanizes Gollum by making him utterly pitiful. The heroes of not only Lord of the Rings, but also of The Hobbit, pity Gollum, and the reader does too. He’s a lonely, mostly deranged creature that is driven by something other than his own rational thoughts. His addiction to the ring has made him less than his own man. Because the reader can feel sorry for Gollum, it’s hard to hate him completely, and his villainous actions are more impactful. When he falls back into actions driven by his addiction, the reader aches a bit because he couldn’t resist it forever.

Villainous technique: Make your reader pity the villain.

The Last Unicorn: King Haggard

The Last Unicorn 40th Anniversary CoverThrough much of Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn there is no physical antagonist impeding the unicorn’s quest to find the rest of the unicorns. Once King Haggard arrives on the scene, he fills that role. Haggard lacks the human ability to be happy, which you might think would make him less than human, but he lacks this ability because of a common human failing: he doesn’t know what would make him happy. This selective ignorance drives Haggard’s deepest flaw, and it’s also something many people in the world share. Lots of people don’t know what will make them happy. Many of them spend years in pursuit of something they think will make them happy, but because they didn’t know what would make them happy, they end up unhappy, just like Haggard. Haggard’s ignorance is his most endearing factor (and it makes you pity him a bit, just like Gollum).

Villainous technique: Give your villain some ignorance your audience shares or sympathizes with.

Blackdog: Tamghat

Blackdog by K.V. JohansenTamghat in K.V. Johansen’s Blackdog isn’t exactly a poster boy for a humanized villain (although I loved the book, I didn’t think he was even that memorable). However, one thing that kept him from being completely flat was Johansen’s use of a foil character. Tamghat is the villain, but he shares a lot of backstory with Moth, a character who the reader is supposed to like and sympathize with. Because readers learn Tamghat’s backstory (and thus, much of his motivation) from a foil character they like, it’s easier to understand his motivations and follow his goals.

Villainous technique: Introduce a sympathetic foil character that shares some of your villain’s traits.

I Am Not a Serial Killer: Dan Wells

I Am Not a Serial Killer, Dan Wells(Heads up: This is probably the most spoiler-filled section.) Dan Wells’s I Am Not a Serial Killer has a very humanized villain, Mr. Crowley. As the book’s antagonist, Crowley is behind a series of killings in the main character’s home town. However, his motivation is what makes him incredibly human. He kills because he needs to steal body parts so he can stay with his elderly human wife, who he fell in love with even though he’s a demon. He gets caught for his killings because he doesn’t want to have to go far from his wife to harvest body parts. Crowley displays traits that most people would consider admirable: love, fidelity, and consideration for someone he’s been with for a very long time. The fact that these traits drive him to a horrible outcome makes that outcome more powerful.

Villainous technique: Give the villain morally admirable traits (which can sometimes lead to morally reprehensible results).

These are really just a few ways you can make your villain more dynamic. How have your favorite authors humanized some of their villains?

Leaflet Review: Blackdog by K.V. Johansen

Blackdog by K.V. Johansen

Cover illustration by Raymond Swanland (trust me, it’s an even more amazing cover when you can hold it in your hands)

In a land where gods walk on the hills and goddesses rise from the river, lake, and spring, the caravan-guard Holla-Sayan, escaping the bloody conquest of a lakeside town, stops to help an abandoned child and a dying dog. The girl, though, is the incarnation of Attalissa, goddess of Lissavakail, and the dog a shape-changing guardian spirit whose origins have been forgotten. Possessed and nearly driven mad by the Blackdog, Holla-Sayan flees to the desert road, taking the powerless avatar with him.

Necromancy, treachery, massacres, rebellions, and gods dead or lost or mad, follow hard on their heels. But it is Attalissa herself who may be the Blackdog’s—and Holla-Sayan’s—doom.

I picked up Blackdog because Lou Anders from Pyr raved about it at WorldCon. I couldn’t help myself after hearing how excited he was about it. I even sent my husband to Barnes & Noble without me so he could pick it up because the week after WorldCon I was too swamped with deadlines to do anything but edit. (P.S. Giving ourselves a book budget was perhaps the smartest money decision Mr. S and I ever made.)

So I guess that leaves the question: Did it live up to the hype?

Overall, I’d have to say yes. I immensely enjoyed the journey Johansen took me on (I also very, very, very much appreciated that the book’s storyline is complete and won’t require six more books to complete). In the beginning I was a bit hesitant, but I got over it and I’m grateful that I did.

Not So Great Bits

First, the not-my-favorite experiences I had with the book: The book opens from the perspective of Otokas, the man possessed by the Blackdog spirit and the protector of the lake goddess Attalissa (do note that deities in Blackdog are local deities—Attalissa is goddess of a particular lake, Narva has a mountain, Sera a stream, Kinsai a river, Sayan a portion of the Western Grass, etc.). Attalissa is, at this point, a young girl of 8 or 9 and she is powerless until she reaches womanhood. This beginning initially bothered me, because I was emotionally attaching myself to Otokas, who I knew was going to die and be replaced as Blackdog by Holla-Sayan—the back of the book told me so. So why was I spending multiple chapters in a soon-to-be dead man’s head? (I needn’t have feared: Otokas’s memories are relevant to the plot and [slight spoiler] Holla-Sayan receives them when he is possessed.) The first chapters are also full of action (i.e. the sacking of Attalissa’s town and temple), and some of the prose has a syntactic style that made it difficult for me to grasp what was going on or appreciate it. This syntactic quirk either died in later chapters or I learned to understand it, because it wasn’t a problem as the book progressed.

Very Great Bits

Worldbuilding. Now for the good. The worldbuilding was fun and diverse. I loved it. There were lots of different cultures within the book, and they’re fairly well differentiated. Most (if not all) have some sort of parallel with the real world—Nabban is like China, the Northrons are Scandinavian-esque, etc. Holla-Sayan’s caravan is very culturally diverse, and you get a taste of each culture from spending time with the caravaneers. Everyone has a sense of place, of connection to their people, their land, and their gods. Even magic comes in widely varying cultural styles, from the cats-cradle woven spells of the Western Grass to rune-based Northron spells and Nabbani divination based on the Sun–Moon dichotomy. The theme of place wanders throughout the book, even while you’re following people in a caravan.

Year-spanning plot and age-spanning backstory. I was immensely impressed with how Johansen handled the fact that the book spans several years and that the world and the characters all have complex backstories. There was a bit of an infodump when Holla-Sayan was introduced, but overall the character and world backstories are revealed elegantly in piecemeal, partially because different pieces are introduced from various viewpoint characters and cultural perspectives. The histories of the seven devils and the seven wizards that rocked the world with their war on the Old Great Gods is shared in storyteller-type epitaphs in the first portion of the book as well as through the character’s eyes. Spanning years and eons in one book is a feat I rarely see done to my satisfaction, buy Johansen excelled.

Viewpoint-character diversity. The diversity in the viewpoint characters was the highlight of the book for me. Each character has things that motivate them and drive them to action, and they’re all pretty sympathetic (the person I sympathized the least with was, incidentally, the Villain). Even though two characters may view the same event in completely different terms (for example, Attalissa and Moth view things very differently but remember a lot of the same time span), both viewpoints are validated and neither is necessarily marked as any worse than the other.

(Side note: I loved Moth’s character. She added a lot to the depth and diversity of the book, and she granted a level of humanity and sympathy to Tamghat—the Villain—that I don’t think I would have gotten otherwise.)

(Other side note: Attalissa—or Pakdhala, as she is called while she is with the caravan—was probably the character it took me the longest to appreciate since she doesn’t really come into her own as a person for a long time.)

Conclusion and Disclaimer

Overall, I found the book immensely enjoyable, and I was very annoyed when I had to put it down to do something silly, like go to work. While I had my quibbles with this and that, those quibbles never marred my enjoyment of the story or of the characters. The plot is very multi-dimensional—far more so than I’ve communicated in this review, or is even hinted at in the back-cover copy. There is a grand scope to the novel even though it is isolated to location-specific characters and plot points. It has such a grand scope that I feared the loose ends wouldn’t be tied up by the final chapter and I’d have to wait for another book to come out, but Johansen neatly concludes Blackdog’s story. While there are certainly threads that could continue further (Moth’s quest is far from over, for example), the book is completely satisfying as a standalone.

I should also note that I’ve read a review or two that complain that it’s difficult to keep track of characters because each character has a name, a nickname, and possibly another name or two. I didn’t have a problem with this, but that’s probably because I was forewarned. So be aware: Attalissa is also ’Lissa, Pakdhala, and ’Dhala; other people also have a large variety of names. Go in prepared and it won’t be an issue.