I judge books by their covers

“Don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” If I had a nickle for every time during my childhood my mother said that, I would have a metric ton of nickles. At the time, I didn’t. To be completely honest, I didn’t judge books at all. If I could get my hands on them, I read them. I distinctly remember the moment that I realized books weren’t always great. I had been binge reading Nancy Drew. This was the point I noticed that in the last 3 books, she had received early birthday presents from her father twice. Both were large, extravagant gifts for her 18th birthday, and the catalyst for her adventure that book. It was at this point I realized all the books were inherently the same. I *saw* the formula.

Needless to say, it *quite* ruined a LARGE number of books for me. I couldn’t read Nancy Drew anymore, because it felt so similar. I couldn’t read Goosebumps, Sweet Valley Twins and Friends, even Boxcar Children, all of my favorite childhood books, fallen to the wayside. I began to gravitate towards books like Goblins in the Castle, The Westing Game, and other such titles that fell outside the realm of serial books.

This was the point where I became a “book snob”. I didn’t just want books that were enjoyable. I wanted books that were worth my time. This didn’t mean the book needed to be academic or even critically acclaimed, but rather that I found the author good and the book had quality writing. It also caused my secondary reading quirk where I want to read something good, but because I don’t trust a book to be good any more, I re-read something I *know* I like already. I get stuck in these cycles of endlessly re-reading books I have already read.

What does one do in this instance? I tried asking friends. Six books worth of Sword of Truth and half of Game of Thrones later, I have discovered this is not necessarily the best course. (To be fair, at least Sword of Truth *started* off well.) I am aware of the cyclical nature of this problem. Every time I try to branch out to a new book, I discover a *terrible* book and am further convinced that the target I am attempting to find is heavily obscured.

So I started judging books by their covers.

Karen Miller, author of the Godspeaker trilogy, has superb covers. The first, called Empress, has dark and sullen looking girl on the front. Reading the blurb on the back identifies this girl as the main character. Born into poverty, sold as a slave, she would eventually become the titular Empress. The other two books in the series were equally lovely. They didn’t fit the high fantasy norm. So I purchased it and read it.

I have never loved and hated a book more. Empress, and the two other books, are among the most wonderfully written books I have ever read. With the absolute worst story. The main character, the sullen girl Hekat, starts off great, but then turns into this arrogant self centered b*tch who makes up her own rules as she goes, and even the jealous “divine” in the book allows to her just do whatever, despite handing down swift and vicious justice to anyone else who even toes the line. By the end of Empress I was completely convinced that this was the worst book I had ever read, if well written. I am known for hating books that kill off characters I like, and yet, I realized that the entire cast could be wiped out and I wouldn’t shed a single tear. Hateful little snots, all of them. But Miller was just good enough to keep me reading. By the end of the series, I had at least found a few characters to like, and read with glee as a few of the more hated characters received their just desserts. The cover had proven true. The story was bleak and arid, with bright spots of color. In addition, the description on the backs were spot on for the books.

To break away from Fantasy a bit, if one looks at Romance books, you will tend to find all the covers are *abysmal*. with few exceptions (just like the books!). Ironically Julia Quinn (previously mentioned) has very nice, very plain covers. (No bare chested men here.) She doesn’t need the titillation to drive readers to her book, she knows she will get them on her own. They pick up one and the next thing you know they have bought them all.

Now, when picking over a book and trying to decide what to read, I try to decide based on friend’s input, in addition to the cover. Does it mention “prophecy” on the back (ie does the writer use a generic convention to make their story “work”)? Does it have one of those poorly drawn fantasy images of a woman in a metal bikini? There is nothing worse than a leftover 80s image of some bad science fiction image to push me away.

This can lead to good finds (Karen Miller) and bad finds (Brent Weeks, I so wanted you to be good) and completely missed finds (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, currently my next possibility for a good book, but man could you *have* a more boring cover???). I also have learned that brand loyalty, while not always positive, can lead to good finds (Brandon Sanderson by virtue of Robert Jordan.) I tend not to trust Amazon reviews (they hate McKiernan, so I ignore them for the most part) and will at least give friend reviews a bit of a look. I find sites that promise to lead one to good fantasy dubious at best (anyone notice how they rant on derivative work but then all their top favorites are *exactly* that?) I find it utterly hilarious that the go to phrase when I ask people why they like Game of Thrones is “No one is safe! He kills off major characters all the time!” Yes, so does Whedon and it ticks me off when does it too. I do understand the “gritty realism” as a logical reason for liking it, but this is the point where I always look at the person and say “So, you read fantasy for it’s realism?” Although, as an interesting point to the topic, Game of Thrones has a very dull cover on the commonly sold copy that is seen in most bookstores now, but even the old one was fairly plain by say Wheel of Time standards (maybe the gritty realism coming back?). I want Tolkien, only with a better editor, more compelling characters, and better action. Call it derivative if you want, but there is a REASON the man spawned an entire genre.

Despite judging a book by it’s cover, it seems to lead to just as many successes as failures. And less hurt feelings when a person says “Read this you’ll LOVE it.” I read. And then I am like, seriously? And you make fun of *my* Wheel of Time?

I know the truth is I am just as unlikely to find a good book based on it’s cover as any other criteria. At least with the cover I can blame clever marketing instead of feeling the depression that a majority of the world has absolutely terrible tastes in books.

You got your philosophy in my fantasy…

It’s always hard talking to someone about something you *love* when they don’t love it. It’s harder when they really don’t like it. As a general rule, I avoid really getting negative on things I don’t like to people I know like it. It’s why, despite my borderline psychotic hatred of Twilight, I generally don’t rant about it at work (we have at least 2 Twilight fans, so I rein it in).

Any time I get to talking about books, it always come up that I read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. A great deal of the time the person’s face squishes up and they frown. Before they can even say anything else, I laugh and say, “That’s fair.” I love Wheel of Time, but that doesn’t make me blind to it’s faults. (I swear *every* *single* *woman* in that world “sniffs” when annoyed.) Anyone who read the series and made it past book 5 has shown they are incredibly patient and has perseverance. The man wrote tomes worth of description and got far too interested in minor characters. I understand why people wouldn’t like it.

The thing that always trips me up is when I get to talking about a book I like and the other person likes and we like it for two different, and occasionally conflicting, reasons. It always happens in such a fashion that I almost stop and ask, What book were you reading?!?

I always want to talk about certain books, but invariably no one has read them. I long to find someone who has read Dennis L. McKiernan as much as I have. Or Brandon Sanderson (though I am getting pretty close on my mom for him). The irony being, when I finally *found* someone who liked Dennis McKiernan the first words out of their mouth was “Well, I liked his early work. His later stuff is just terrible and cliche.” I caught myself right before very rudely saying “What the —- is wrong with you? It’s totally the other way around!” McKiernan’s first book was originally written as a sequel to Lord of the Rings. And when the publisher couldn’t get the rights they had him re-write it *just* enough to not be Lord of the Rings. It was terrible. Entire sections were inconsistent. Not to mention that as a whole it felt very derivative of LotR without anything good to differentiate it. The later Mithgar books, after he had a few years to really feel the world and branch out… they are exceptional. He shakes loose his Tolkien roots and sprouts wings of appealing and engaging fantasy tales.

The best thing, in my opinion, is that in every book he generally interweaves some philosophical idea that ties into the main story. The ever shifting nature of good and evil. The positives and negatives of organized religion. The protection and destruction of nature. Predestination versus free will. Kings and the balance of power. Immortality, mortality, and future generations. War, peace, and the necessity of battle. Generally these are scattered throughout the book and one doesn’t think about them until later, after they have put the book down. I love it, but apparently some people hate it. He tends to do this much more in his later works, with little or none in his early works.

Add to this his truly villainous villains, stalwart heroes, range of environments, detail in the world and cultures, and non conventional plots and you have a truly wonderful series. Best of all, each book stands alone, despite having an overarching chronology and overlapping characters. (Non conventional plots – Have you ever read a story all about chasing down a specific bad guy to keep him from doing some horrible thing, only to have the heroes *fail*? It’s great! And sets the stage for the rest of the series!)

Most of the Mithgar series is currently out of print. To me, this means a decrease in the already rare number of people I meet who have read his work.  Maybe this is a good thing, considering how attached I am to the series. It also makes me wonder, what books do I rave about that other people have the same reaction to?