If you’re wandering through a store or scanning a website, it’s generally easy to recognise a fantasy novel. Most covers have features and styles that make them unmistakable. In fact, fantasy and science fiction novels have a history of standing out… and not always in a positive way. They are famous for their gaudy, bizarre and sometimes downright ugly cover art – there’s even a website dedicated to collecting the worst sci-fi and fantasy book covers.
On the whole, however, I think the genre has produced some great imagery, and has moved away from the gaudy paperback covers it became famous for. I’m not saying you couldn’t find plenty out there, but modern cover artists have upped their game and adopted a few new trends.
As you can see in the Orbit Books chart above, many covers depict typical fantasy objects that make genre recognition easy, but there are other clichés that designers use to let people know they’re looking at a fantasy novel. Many of us interpret these visual clues unconsciously, so I thought I’d take a more deliberate look at the most common features:
1. Cloaked and Hooded Figures
This is perhaps the feature that most obviously screams fantasy – and in particular, epic high fantasy. If you see a person that is wearing a cloak, and particularly a hood, you can be 99% sure you’re looking at a fantasy novel.
2. Armed or Armoured Figures
Armed figures dominate the covers of all kinds of fantasy novels, and have done for decades – the most typical iteration being a character holding a sword. Often the character is also wearing armour… though if it’s a female character they may be more scantily clad in armour that looks far from protective or practical!
3. Swords and Other Weapons
While armed figures dominate fantasy covers, weapons by themselves are also regularly used as cover features. The vast majority of the time it will be a dagger or sword, but sceptres, bows, arrows and other weapons are also often featured.
4. Cities, Citadels and Vast Landscapes
This is a classic tradition that still appears to be prevalent today. Dream-like illustrations of ancient-looking cities or landscapes with otherworldy features are a mark of fantasy fiction. Towers and castles often form central features within these landscapes, as they also do in fantasy titles.
5. Women in Voluminous Old-Fashioned Gowns
This feature isn’t exclusive to fantasy, as many romance novels follow this trend. However, a solitary female figure in a large flowing gown, particularly if she is surrounded by a dark or wild landscape and/or magical features, often forms the centrepiece of dark fantasy, paranormal romance or YA fantasy book covers.
6. Woods, Vines and Leaves
Images of wild woods, leaves and/or twisting vine patterns often form a key component of fantasy covers. They are used on many sub-genres of fantasy, and their presence usually immediately suggests fantasy fiction.
7. Elaborate Patterned Borders
These are a regular feature on the covers of many types of fantasy novels, and have been for many years. They usually frame the central figure or title on the cover. They suggest wilderness, enchanted woods, magic and ancient folk or fairy tales.
8. Stars, Sparkles and Glowing Magic
Yes, it seems a little obvious… but the inclusion of features that create a sparkly, spattered star-like effect or a warm magical glow is not uncommon when it comes to fantasy cover art. Fantasies are usually about magic, after all.
9. Symbols, Runes and Ancient Scripts
Sometimes fantasy covers will work runes, ancient-looking scripts and magical symbols into their the cover images – a tradition perhaps instigated or popularised by the Elvish used on Lord of the Rings covers and artwork. Often scripts and symbols appear on stone or other surfaces within the cover image, but they can also be used as a central feature.
This is usually a feature reserved for paranormal romances, and in particular vampire fiction, but fantasy romance and dark fantasy novels often follow this trend as well. A judicious splash of red, blood-red lips, or a red focal object in a largely colourless image… these features quickly send a message about the tone and content of the book.
11. Curly Elaborate Font
This is by no means present on all fantasy covers, but fonts with curly flourishes and edges can often be a strong indicator that you’re looking at a fantasy novel – particularly of a fairy-tale-inspired novel, a paranormal fantasy or a fantasy romance.
12. Silver and Gold
The use of silver and gold is popular for all kinds of fantasy novels, either for the text on the cover, for highlights in the image, or as a background fill for the whole cover. It’s very hard to tell when viewing covers online, but the print editions all of the below books have an eye-catching metallic sheen:
This seems to be a new trend in fantasy covers that is becoming more popular, where figures and items are shown in silhouette. It is often used for historical fantasy novels, particularly those set in the regency period, though I have seen in employed for other kinds of fantasy as well.
Many fantasy cover have black as a predominant part of the colour scheme, or display images that appear dark and shadowy… particularly at the edges. Some even go for all-black backgrounds overlaid with sparse objects and text in other colours. This is unsurprising, given the dark and mysterious mood many aim to create. In fact, a bright cover image at first glance will often make me assume a book is not a fantasy, unless it has other distinctive fantasy features.
15. Rich Colours
This is rather general, but it’s worth noting that cover artists tend to use rich, almost glowing colours on fantasy books. Almost all of the covers I’ve included in this post use rich colour, but here are some particularly vivid examples:
Needless to say, a dragon on the cover is a dead giveaway that it’s a fantasy novel. Usually, however, they only appear on fantasies where dragons form a key element of the plot and world.
17. Antique Textures: Books, Armour, Metal
This is not say the covers are actually embossed or textured (though many are), but they often sport images that appear textured, using embossed leather or metal shields or engraved weapons as a dominant design feature.
These are the trends I have found to be currently typical on fantasy covers, and most fantasy novels you encounter will use one or several of the above… some skilfully and some not so skilfully. And of course, there will always be some covers that boldly go for an entirely different look… for example, here are a few that don’t fit the mould, and thus ones I didn’t recognise as fantasy novels at first glance:
If you’re interested in learning more about fantasy book covers, here are some other cover-related Thoughts on Fantasy posts:
- How to Make a Clichéd High Fantasy Cover
- 5 Features That Make Me Fall in Love With a Book Cover
- Judging a Book by Its Name: 10 Common Trends in Fantasy Titles
And you can also check out:
- The Chesley Award winners in 2016 and nominees in 2017 (SF&F artwork and cover awards run every year by the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists).
- These Orbit Books “Charts of Fantasy Art” posts that highlight some cover art trends: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four
- Fantasy author Jim C Hines famously copying F&SF covers that show scantily clad women in suggestive poses.
- The sci-fi & fantasy portfolio gallery of this book design company
- This discussion of clichés on fantasy book covers from The Book Smugglers
[Post updated July 2017]