So the first function that a good covers serves is to let the reader know exactly WHAT KIND of story lies within. The second function of a good fantasy book cover is engage a SENSE OF WONDER in those who see it, which ideally gets them to actually pick up the book, take a look at it, and (if the Gods are with the author) actually BUY it.
A poorly designed or badly chosen cover can doom a book to years of sitting on the shelf. The old saying “You can’t judge a book by it’s cover” is actually true–however, people DO judge books by their covers. At least initially. Once you have read a book, THEN you know how good (or bad) it is, and the cover becomes far less important. But without that attractive, engaging cover, you might not have picked up the book in the first place!
Covers are even more important for writers who lack that ephemeral quality known as “fame”—famous writers’ books sell themselves despite the cover design. In order to get new readers to take a chance on your book, you need one thing above all else: A damn good cover.
I’ve been reading fantasy fiction my entire life. Throughout those 43 years of joy, pain, and endless discovery, there have been books whose covers grab my attention, capture my imagination, and stay with me as if burned into the synapses of my brain. These are covers that have fascinated me for decades, and I know them so well they feel like parts of ME. That may sound strange, but writers are always a bit strange. These are covers that, to me, are perfect visions of the fantastic, distilled imagination manifested in color, line, and text.
A couple of clarifications first: 1) These are my favorite COVERS, not necessarily my favorite books—although I recommend all of them to discriminating fantasy fans. 2) I’m including only the covers of novels and anthologies here—no magazines or comics covers.
So, without further ado, here are my TOP 10 FANTASY BOOK COVERS of All Time…
10. CONAN THE ADVENTURER by Howard & De Camp – Art by Frank Frazetta
You can’t talk about great fantasy book covers without talking about Frank Frazetta. He was, simply put, the greatest fantasy artist of the 20th Century. He did so many great paintings and fired so many imaginations it’s nearly impossible to pick a favorite painting by him. His CONAN covers helped sell millions of copies in the 60s and 70s, bringing Robert E. Howard’s most famous creation back into mainstream popularity. If not for Frazetta’s amazing covers on these books, there would probably have never been any CONAN comics, or further editions of Howard’s work. The painting that adorns of the cover of CONAN THE ADVENTURER is one of the most iconic images of the Cimmerian ever painted. The battle is over and the barbarian conquerer stands atop a pile of defeated foes with the damsel he has rescued from the fray. Yet in the sky the images of doom and death hang above him like phantom premonitions of battles to come. Superb.
9. DEATH’S MASTER by Tanith Lee – Art by Ken Kelly
The second book of Tanith Lee’s TALES OF THE FLAT EARTH series just so happens to be one of my favorite fantasy novels. I first discovered the book in my early 20s when I picked it off the shelf of a used bookstore, knowing nothing about it. It was this gorgeous painting of Uhlume (Death’s Master) and the warrior-queen Narasen striding through the Innerearth that made me reach for this book and take it home. From the moment I started reading I was hooked, and I immediately sought out the entire Flat Earth series. Fortunately, all of these novels were collected into a couple of nice hardback editions—but none of the collected editions featured the amazing Kelly cover art that introduced me to the Flat Earth.
8. CASTLE ROOGNA by Piers Anthony – Art by Darrell K. Sweet
I must have been 9 or 10 years old when I picked up a copy of CASTLE ROOGNA at my local KMart store in Elizabethtown, Kentucky. The cover painting by the late, great Darrell K. Sweet grabbed my fancy—not only was there a barbarian hero with a two-handed sword on his back, but he was hanging out with a giant spider and talking to a centaur! Piers Anthony’s Xanth series (of which this was the third book) are perfect for young readers who crave lighthearted adventure and nonstop imagination. I ended up reading four or five Xanth books before I “outgrew” them, but this great cover still captivates me when I see it.
7. A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs – Art by Michael Whelan
Now that the great Frazetta has passed away, Michael Whelan has to be considered the new King of Fantasy Art. He has done so many amazing covers in the last three or four decades, I couldn’t begin to count them all. His style is lush and full of energy, and nowhere is this more evident than his spectacular cover to ERB’s first John Carter novel, A PRINCESS OF MARS. I fell in love with this book the first time I saw this cover, and I devoured the first four John Carter books as a youth. I love all of Whelan’s Martian Tales covers, but I picked this one because it conveys perfectly the spirit of the entire series: John Carter standing over a defeated Thark enemy holding the beautiful Dejah Thoris in his arms. Action, adventure, romance, aliens, sword-fighting, and even a radium pistol on his hip. What’s not to love? Also, this particular series of ERB books had an amazing logo treatment.
6. TARNSMAN OF GOR by John Norman – Art by Boris Vallejo
Much has been written about the sexism and sado-masochistic nature of John Norma’s GOR novels, but when I was a kid reading the first five books of the long-running series, I was oblivious to these adult themes. I read them for the heroic adventure, the exotic settings, and the swashbuckling action. Whether you love or hate Norman’s creation, there is no denying the amazing power of Boris Vallejo’s covers. My favorite is the first volume, TARNSMAN OF GOR, although Vallejo did many more for Norman’s series. This cover image has so much going for it—the exotic setting of the merchant in his lizard-borne palanquin, the spearman on his reptilian steed, the despairing slave girl in chains, and the warrior with his scimitar ready to defend her. Much like the ERB books, this series had a terrific logo treatment that made the art stand out and drew the eye like a magnet. Vallejo is a living icon of fantasy art, and this is one of his best covers.
5. CONAN THE USURPER by Howard & De Camp – Art by Frank Frazetta
You didn’t think I could do this list with only a single Frazetta cover did you? Impossible! This cover hit me like a sledgehammer as an 10-year-old fantasy reader—and the stories inside hit me even harder. Inside this volume I found some of Howard’s best original tales of Conan the Cimmerian: “The Scarlet Citadel” and “Phoenix on the Sword.” (The cover painting is based on the former.) This was about the time I started realizing that the Conan stories written by Robert E. Howard alone were far superior to the “pastiches” written by De Camp and Carter. Yet without the efforts of those two fine gentlemen (and the Frazetta covers), I might never have discovered the classic Howard tales.
4. THE YEAR’S BEST FANTASY STORIES Vol. 6 – Edited by Lin Carter – Art by Josh Kirby
The late Lin Carter is one of those polarizing figures in the world of fantasy. He is widely praised as an editor who brought classic fantasy to new heights of popularity in the 60s and 70s—practically resurrecting the Sword and Sorcery genre singlehandedly with his Ballantine Adult Fantasy series and CONAN collections. Yet his own fiction is often denegrated and dismissed by “purists” and fans who consider him a less-than-worthy writer. Whatever you think of his colorful, pulp-influenced writing, there is no doubt that Carter knew how to pick a terrific cover for his books. This cover from 1980s THE YEAR’S BEST FANTASY: 6 is one I never tire of looking at. I was in middle school when this book called to me from across a convenience store, and it’s still one of my favorite fantasy images. The stark white background makes Josh Kirby’s painting really “pop” right off the cover, the text font is perfect for fantasy, and this cover defied expectations of the time. Instead of a brawny warrior defending a “damsel in distress” here was a kickass babe who was a Giant-Slayer in her own right. And she looks damn good doing it, too.
3. BARBARIAN OF WORLD’S END by Lin Carter – Art by John Bierley
Another splendid pulp-inspired cover from Lin Carter, this one for the fourth novel in his Gondwane series (1977). Here we see the Herculean hero of World’s End, Ganelon Silvermane, captured and chained by a horde of red-eyed Ximchak barbarians. This is one of those covers that imprinted itself on my adolescent brain like a tatoo on a biker’s arm. I love the red text on the yellow background, I love the crude beauty of the image, and I never get tired of staring at this cover. I have never encountered another cover or painting by Bierley, so that makes this one even more special.
It’s just COOL!
2. LOST WORLDS by Lin Carter – Art by Enrich Torres
This is the third Lin Carter book on the list, and it only goes to show that the man had great taste in artists, as well as writers. This particular book is my favorite of all Lin’s fiction, as it includes my favorite Carter short story “The Twelve Wizards of Ong,” as well as a couple of stories he finished based on outlines from Clark Ashton Smith, who is one of my favorite writers. There are some other great stories in this slim volume, including a tale or two of Carter’s Thongor of Valkarth. The cover by Enrich Torres fires my imagination like few other images: Again we have the warrior-woman—this time she’s carrying the severed head of a brutish foe, and she’s riding on the back of a majestic centaur. They stand at the edge of a shadowy abyss, and the mind reels at imagining the horrors that lay in the darkness far below. Something tells me she’s about to toss that head into the chasm…but we’ll never know unless someone writes a story based on this incredible painting.
Okay, you talked me into it.
1. STORMBRINGER by Michael Moorcock – Art by Michael Whelan
Whelan did tons of magnificent covers, but the one that stands out the most for me is STORMBRINGER. Moorcock’s most legendary creation is Elric of Melnibone, the White Wolf, the Prince of Ruins, the original Kinslayer. Nowhere is there a more iconic and enduring image than this cover: Standing atop a ruined tower, Elric hoists the black blade and the tempest rises about him. The novel gets its name from the soul-drinking blade that is far more than it seems. The story here is apocalyptic, and the cover conveys all the grandeur, beauty, and wonder of the epic adventure inside. This is my favorite of Whelan’s many masterpieces, and it could serve as a representation of everything that’s cool about heroic fantasy.