Judging a Books Cover

Posted on January 12, 2018

Sci-fi and fantasy books are notorious for having misleading covers. Often they depict events that don’t happen, characters that don’t match their descriptions, and sometimes completely different setting with no basis in the book. We all know the saying – Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover – but there are things we can learn from the cover. In this case I’ll be looking at the cover of Fire Get, a relatively obscure fantasy book by Cheryl J. Franklin and released in 1987. Why this particular cover? Because what it gets wrong reveals a lot about gender biases in storytelling, especially in fantasy settings.

!Spoiler alert for a 30 year old book!

            Before we can analyze what is wrong about the cover, we need some background first. Fire Get is the story of an untrained sorceress, a highly trained wizard, and their mortal companions as they try to save the world. Fairly standard overview, but Cheryl J. Franklin did some interesting things with an old formula. Rhianna, the aforementioned sorceress, is the main character and never allows anyone else to make decisions for her. She runs away from her constricting and domineering father when he arranges her marriage against her will. She manages to survive in a dangerous magical forest for many months until her path crosses a group of adventures. Desperate for some human companionship she starts to follow them. It’s important to note that they have no idea she is doing so, and she only reveals herself weeks later when she has decided to join them. Eventually they meet up with the rest of the group, Kaedric, the aforementioned wizard, and a kindly abbot. Kaedric is an extremely powerful wizard, far beyond any of his peers. In this book that’s not necessarily a good thing. In Fire Get magical ability is inversely related with empathy and stability. Extremely powerful mages tend to be tyrants, insane, or both. This is a central part of Kaedrics character – he must always strive to be human. The abbot is his only friend and his prime emotional contact the human race. Now that the pieces are in place we can analyze the cover.

The two characters shown are Kaedric and Rhianna. This is an obvious reference to a scene where the party is trying to fight off gargoyles. However what is described in the book is very different. For one Rhianna never passed out and never needed protecting. She was in fact the only character able to keep herself safe from the gargoyles. Kaedric did defend a fallen ally during this fight, but he was protecting the abbot. I don’t know why the late Tim Hildebrandt drew the scene this way, but I think it says a lot. Somewhere along the line it changed from a man protecting his oldest friend and a woman defending herself to a man heroically saving a helpless woman. This is problematic for obvious reasons. Rhianna was holding her own just fine, and at this point in the story Kaedric has only been outright hostile to her. I hope I don’t need to go into details on why this is sexist, because I would like to focus on another aspect. How this is detrimental to Kaedrics character as well, lessening the core impact of his character. His struggle to relate to normal humans when he can level entire cities with a thought is an integral part of the story. If you remove his closeness with the abbot he becomes a much simpler character – the archetypical anti-hero who struggles to contain his awesome powers but always does the right thing anyway.

To me this is a beautiful example on why feminism is beneficial for everyone.  You cannot force specific role on women without also forcing men away from those roles. If cooking is “women’s work” then by definition a man who cooks is less masculine. By changing Rhianna into a stereotypical damsel in distress the male characters must also change into stereotypical white knights, even though it goes against their core character traits and destroys their character growth.