Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Cover Story - The Missing Faces of Historical Fiction

One of the book blogs that reviewed I Serve commented on how unique the book's cover was--the solid black background with the stark contrast of the red gloves. With only a few conceptual ideas from Rosanne, layout designer Masha Shubin used themes from the story and her own artistic genius to come up with the cover for I Serve. But just how unusual is it? A short tour of recent releases in historical fiction can answer that question.

First, take a look at The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, by C. W. Gortner. Just released in May, Gortner's book features the middle two-thirds of a woman's body in lavish period costume with the top half of her head obscured. One wonders, but will never know, what sort of eyes the woman has, what color hair, what expression on her face.

Alison Weir's latest release, Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine, has nearly all the same elements on the cover, the main difference being that the heroine's dress is a captivating shade of blue. The reader is also treated to a glimpse of the heroine's nose although the eyes are still obscured by the author's banner across the top.

Moving out of the Middle Ages into the ancient world, you can see that the same formula holds true. Michelle Moran's new book Cleopatra's Daughter shows the chin, torso, and upper legs of a Roman maiden with an outfit every bit as elaborate as the clothes of the medieval queens.

One of my favorite historical fiction authors, whom I discovered nearly fifteen years ago, is Edith Pargeter. When I first read her quartet The Brothers of Gwynedd, I remember the distinctly medieval feel of the cover with the gold calligraphy and illuminated initial.

Just this year, Pargeter's Brothers of Gwynedd has been reprinted. The cover has been modernized to fit in with current trends. The hero of the book, Llewellyn of Wales, is a distinctly masculine protagonist and all the women in the story are relegated to supporting roles, but even so, we have the headless bodice of a medieval beauty on the top half of the cover, while a band of armed men on the bottom half make a halfhearted attempt to represent the actual plot.

So, is I Serve's cover unique? Most definitely. But whether that is a desirable quality, I will leave to the taste of the reader.

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