So, let’s talk about the recently revealed cover for
The Way of Kin— err… wait, I mean Words of Radiance, the second volume in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. I won’t ever blame you for mistaking the two books, so, please, afford me the same luxury.
Now, let’s talk a little bit about one of publishing’s biggest catch-22 arguments. Fans have cried ‘foul’ time-and-again when publishers step in and change the style of a series’ covers midway through. It’s great when a completed series gets a re-issue, but, I think I can speak for most fans when I say that it’s nice to have a matching set of books on your bookshelf. On the flip side, though, there are a lot of cases of lazy design work, with the publisher, or at least the art department, jumping on board with what worked in the past and riding it until it keels over from exhaustion. A good example of this is the early cover for Brent Weeks’ The Black Prism. Orbit found huge success with Weeks’ first trilogy, in large part because of the striking covers. Back then, the hooded dude was still waiting tables, just trying to catch a break. Now, he’s everywhere, we’re sick of him, but he established a strong brand for Weeks and his Night Angel Trilogy. The first cover leaked to the public looked like a sequel to Weeks’ first trilogy even though it was an entirely new series. The cover was changed before publication. And then a new cover was issued for the recent trade paperback edition of the novel. It’s gorgeous. Orbit has done a great job of recognizing the need to create a strong brand for Weeks, but not at the expense of driving the concept into the ground.
This cover for Words of Radiance takes the idea of brand and flogs it like a dead horse.
Like all of Whelan’s work, it’s a visually striking piece on initial glance. The colours are gorgeous, and the background is menacing and magical. But, then you see those weird onion things again. And the awkwardly posed character (is he picking up that glowing rock? Why’s he looking at me and not that bad guy?) And the monochromatic ninja literally standing on a pile of bodies. Then, finally, you realize that it’s the exact same cover Whelan produced for The Way of Kings and A Memory of Light.
Whelan discusses his thoughts on the process of creating the cover on Tor.com:
I was aided in this part by Irene Gallo and the editorial staff at Tor Books. After conferring with Brandon Sanderson they agreed on a short list of key scenes for me to consider. Irene sent me these possible scenes in an email accompanied by copious notes about characters, dress, and other necessary details.
I chewed over these potential scenes, read what I could of the actual text, and let everything simmer in my head while I completed other tasks. But even with the limited scope of the scenes that were selected for me, possibilities abounded in such profusion that I began to feel paralyzed with indecision. All directions looked equally tantalizing.
With such a bewildering array of opportunities before me I fell back on a formula that I’ve employed regularly through my career: set out to establish the value relationships of the image first and save the issue of color for the last step before beginning work on the actual painting. Once I get started, ideas start popping up in my head even while I’m doing something else; in such cases I’ll do a sketch on whatever is handy. Many of these quick loose sketches or “thumbnails” are done on sheets of old manuscript paper [from books I was commissioned to do in the pre-digital days].
Whelan explains the process that he and Irene Gallo went through to find the right ‘scene’ to present on the cover, but, in the end, it feels more like they knew which character they wanted to portray, and replicated the layout, composition and emotional resonance of the first cover and stick a couple of different characters in there. I’m not so sure that it’s a scene, as it is a character portrait. Whelan explains that some of the composition was directed by his having access to “a provisional type layout which was extremely helpful in [showing him] where to alter the composition to make things fit in the open areas.”
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, the original covers for the Wheel of Time novels were a tremendous success at creating an easily recognizable brand for Jordan’s novels. Though artist Darrell K. Sweet’s work deteriorated in quality through the end of the series, with The Gathering Storm being a particular low point, each edition of the series felt iconic and unique, while still identifiably a Wheel of Time novel. Compare the compositions of The Path of Daggers to The Dragon Reborn. Both clearly novels in the same series, thanks to the branding of the consistency of the titles and other decorations, but with unique compositions, tones and weight. Even comparing The Path of Daggers to The Eye of the World, which both feature people riding horses, you can see a difference.
A quick comparison of the two covers for The Way of Kings and Words of Radiance illustrates just how similar the covers are:
I’ve loved Whelan as long as I’ve loved fantasy. He’s always astounded me with his vision, his creativity, his… art. But, I’m not seeing it here, and that makes me sad. Consistency is good. Brand is good. But this seems a tad to derivative for the second book in a (supposedly) ten book series. Are we in for eight more volumes of a stormy sky, a mysterious figure in the background, onions, and awkwardly-posed characters hanging onto the right side of our covers? What happens when you run out of characters? I’m disappointed. Though, by now, maybe I should know better. Because, hey, when grandma’s at the grocery store and sees a book exactly like that one her grand-daughter always talks about, she’s got an easy birthday present right there in front of her. And, well, what are book covers for if not to sell books at grocery stores? They’re certainly not meant to please grumpy bloggers.