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Judging Books by Their Covers: brilliant books ruined by hideous covers

5. Coin Locker Babies - Ryu Murakami

The Impression:
The flying car race of the future will be won by Mr. Flaming Hair. Or maybe he's a goblin. Or maybe the book is about video games and manga culture. And what's with all the scribbling around the title?

The Reality: Murakami's Coin Locker Babies is a Dostoevskian story about two orphans whose mother abandoned them in a coin locker. Very disturbing, though not as disturbing as the guy with face paint and flaming hair on the cover.

4. Thunderer - Felix Gilman

The Impression: Thunderer is not a novel but an album by Felix Gilman, heavy metal god. It should be called "THUNDERER!" Look at Gilman, standing on the bow of a flying ship, surrounded by lightning, prepared to unleash metal doom upon the city.

The Reality: Thunderer is a beautifully written and surreal fiction. Magic Realism meets New Weird. If it wasn't for Jeff Vandermeer's critical comments, the cover would have prevented me from ever buying this otherwise excellent book.

3. Ash: A Lost History - Mary Gentle

The Impression: The worst possible fantasy novel for kids full of heroism and whimsy. Actually, the cover looks like it was drawn by a kid.

The Reality: A brutal alt-history that I have already described here. This book is not, as the cover suggests, even the least bit cavalier and whimsical. Unless you are sick, like the cover artist, and find the brutal rape that begins the novel to be a case of whimsy.

2. Neveryona - Samuel R. Delany

The Impression: Hey, I'm an erotic fanfic for Dungeons&Dragons nerds!

The Reality: Delany's literature is always somewhat highbrow, even when he does play with trashy elements (i.e. the critically acclaimed Dhalgren's co-option of occasional pornographic tropes). The Neveryon books are a complex deconstruction of genre, but this is hard to take seriously when--even if Delany cites Edward Said or Michel Foucault or whoever at the beginning of each chapter--every time you close the book and are forced to stare at the glistening virility of sword and sorcery awesomeness. Try explaining the book to your friends and telling them it is not fantasy-nerd-pron. Or try reading it on a subway without embarassment.

1. The Enchantress - Han Suyin

The Impression: The "best" possible Harlequin Romance where an impressionable and beautiful white woman "enchants" a handsome but superstitious "oriental" in the barbarbaric east. Cross-cultural love with exciting and reaffirming eurocentric dimensions. Oh, and it doesn't help that some reviewer calls it exotic.

The Reality: Han Suyin was a communist when she wrote this novel, still committed to Mao Zedong's revolution. The Enchantress is actually about the rise of Enlightenment science in Europe and the break with metaphysical alienation, the subsequent rise of the new superstition of Protestant puritanism, and the early days of modern imperialism. There is nothing really romantic about this book where all possibly romantic relationships lead to colonial domination, patriarchal domination, tragedy, and subtle but disturbing incestuous undertones. Poor Han Suyin: this woman has written so many important books, both fiction and non-fiction, and she has been relegated to near obscurity.


  1. Maybe that cover for Han Suyin's book was an attempt to get people to read this book, aka...white men who are "looking for an Asian" romance story. Great post, btw!

  2. Thanks Baolinh... Yes, I'm assuming that was the case for the Han Suyin book - hence my tongue and cheek description in the "impression" by-line... Though I would assume it wasn't necessarily "white men" who would read it: white men want pictures of orientalized warriors with big frikking swords... Or scantily clad orientalized women. There is definitely an orientalist look that was in for book covers in the 1970s/80s, a la racist Harlequin books, that were aimed at some ideal notion of the "modern housewife" who was searching for an "exotic experience."

  3. the butt cheeks on the cover of Neveryona are unbeatable...

  4. Glistening butt cheeks for (n)everyone!


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