Review: X-Men Apocalypse

I dodged the latest X-Men movie (number 3 in the back-in-time reboot) and only just saw it online. The surrounding reviews were not great and I think coming to it with low expectations helped.

It was a big, fun superhero film. Yes, a bit bloated but it kept a fairly steady pace and a sensible plot. Apocalypse is a straightforward Bond villain in many ways: a man who wants to reshape the world and who has no moral limitations. His drive to control the world’s mutant holds the film together with a simple plot thread. The story is unambitious but serviceable.

The weakest aspect of the film is that Michale Fassbender’s Magneto has become ingrained as the tragic quasi-bad guy on the brink of redemption or perdition. Consequently, the story has to give him a new family and then kill them in a cliched fridging. The net effect is it becomes harder to take Magneto seriously as a villain and  a wiser move would have been to allow the Magneto/Xavier dynamic take a rest in this film.

The move of Mystique/Raven (Jennifer Lawerence) into clear good-guy territory is possibly a bigger shift than Magneto’s . However, at least there is some sense in this new timeline for the character to become less consumed by hate and pessimism.

Overall, scratches satisfactorily a superhero itch. Could have been better but it could have been worse or it could have been Batman versus Superman.

Book Cover Award Thing 2016: Redressing the Balance a Bit

Because of the disparity of male v female artists in the selected covers, I’m adding some additional late entrants using my executive powers!

Karen Memory – Elizabeth Bear : Artist/Designer – Cynthia Sheppard(Artist)


Rolling in the Deep – Mira Grant : Artist/Designer – Julie Dillon(Artist)
Stretching the made-up-rules a little with a novella.


The Deep Woods – Tim Pratt : Artist/Designer – Galen Dara(Artist)
Again, a novella.


Voices in the Night: Stories – Steven Millhauser : Artist/Designer – Janet Hansen (Designer) Making another unwritten rule exception and including a book of short stories by one author. Worth it though for an exceptional cover design.


Book Cover Award Thing 2016: Round 2.2 Functionality

The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor : Artist/Designer – Joey Hi-Fi, aka Dale Halvorsen(Artist)
Neatly done. The quote isn’t visible at this size (which is OK) but it is a great one from Ursula Le Guin. Likely to pull people in. 2 points.

The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass – Jim Butcher : Artist/Designer – Chris McGrath(Artist)
Sunday Times and New York Times bestselling author! Gosh. “The Cinder Spires” looks a bit lost, but otherwise the cover does all its jobs well. Who and what. Oh something steampunky by Jim Butcher? 2 points.

The Fifth Season – N.K. Jemisin : Artist/Designer – Lauren Panepinto(Art director)
Title, author and a review quote from a somewhat anonymous There is the odd tag-line “Every age must come to an end.” I assume its there because pictorially hard to express what the book is about. No indication that it is part of a series or that the series has a name. 1 point.

The Grace of Kings – Ken Liu : Artist/Designer – Sam Weber(Artist)
A variant of this cover has “Book One of the Dandelion Dynasty” on it instead of the murky quote from Saladin Ahmed (which I can’t read even in the big version). 1 point, 2 points? I’ll be nice and go with 2 points.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers : Artist/Designer – Christoffer Meyer(tbc)
Name, title, looks SFish but otherwise why would I want to buy this? 1 point.

The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers : Artist/Designer – Christopher Doll(Artist)
Name, title, oh space-opera! oh Ann Leckie liked it! Looks fun. 2 points.
The cover above is better in lots of ways but this one gets the job done better (arguably).

The Shepherd’s Crown – Terry Pratchett : Artist/Designer – Paul Kidby(Artist)
The title actual gets a bit lost. A Discworld Novel – OK but lets assume I didn’t know what that was. Looks a bit like a kid’s fantasy novel about a girl witch…If I do know who Terry Pratchett is but have only dabbled in Discworld, then I’m not going to know this is a series within a series. o points.

The Shepherd’s Crown – Terry Pratchett : Artist/Designer – Jim Tierney(Artist)
Less arresting cover but avoids preconceptions about the content. Looks a bit like a pub sign but that is neither here not there. A Tiffany Aching Adventure (but not apparently a Discworld novel…) possibly the better choice. If I liked the look of this it is probably best to track down other Tiffany Aching stories rather than random Discworld stories (and eventually will be sucked into Discworld anyway). 2 points.

The Traitor, Baru Cormorant – Seth Dickinson : Artist/Designer – Sam Weber(Artist)
The quote from Kameron Hurley is surprisingly* useful, telling us the book is smart, brutal and gut wrenching. Don’t know if this will be a SF, fantasy or historical novel but looks like there is going to be intrigue, politics and personal danger. 2 points

*[Not surprising because of Kameron Hurely but surprising because these quote don’t usually contain much information beyond [NAME] likes [BOOK]]

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street – Natasha Pulley : Artist/Designer – David Mann(tbc)
Name and title and either a Victorian or steam-punk setting. Not much else though (hints of bombs, clockwork an octopus…). 1 point.

Updraft – Fran Wilde : Artist/Designer – Stephan Martiniere(Artist)
Everything we need to know is there. I know there is a sequel but I think this was intended as a standalone? 2 points

Updraft – Fran Wilde : Artist/Designer – Tommy Arnold(Artist)
Same as above. 2 points

Uprooted – Naomi Novik : Artist/Designer – Scott McKowen(Artist)
Both of these covers get the job done. Folkloric-style fantasy. Author, title, recommendation. 2 points.

Uprooted – Naomi Novik : Artist/Designer –
As above 2 points.

War Factory – Neal Asher : Artist/Designer – Larry Rostant(Artist)
ONE MAN WILL HAVE HIS REVENGE! Interesting that this and The Fifth Season both rectify a more general cover with a tell-don’t-show tagline. It’s a bit hidden in this case. Two recommendation at the top, flanking “neal ASHER”. Howver, apparently this is Book 2 and there is no clue of this on the cover! A big oversight given Asher is very prolific. 1 point

Way Down Dark – J.P. Smythe : Artist/Designer – Nameless Hero(tbc)
Way Down Dark is book 1, in a trilogy, by J.P Smythe and it is action packed and has a twist. OK, I can’t tell it’s set in space but I’ll save that for the relevance round. 2 points.

Book Cover Award Thing 2016: Round 2.1 Functionality

Round 2.1 Functionality. I said originally 0 to 3 marks but that is too many levels of distinction and I’m knocking that down to 0 to 2.

Does the cover get the job done?

  1. Who wrote it?
  2. What is it called?
  3. What kind of book is it? (tricky)
  4. What else do I need to know?

Aesthetics aside, this category is about the cover as packaging. Looking for readability and information.

Pictures below the fold – and at a smaller size so you get the thumbnail ebook feel.

Continue reading

More on Gender Disparity and Book Covers

So delving further into the question Cora Buhlert left a long and interesting comment that I thought I’d quote in full here:

SFF is the last bastion of the custom illustrated cover in adult fiction. Most other genres have moved to photographic covers using stock photos. And even SFF is moving that way, partly due to the rise of self-publishing, since self-publishers often cannot afford custom illustration. But even trade publishers are relying more and more on stock art (and there are a few covers here I think are based on stock art), because stock photos and stock art are cheaper than commissioning an artist. e.g. You can find a lot of decent exploding spaceship type CGI images, if you browse the stock art sites. And with stock art, the image itself usually comes before the artist (though I know at least one excellent SF stock artist who’s female).

Now the question is, why are there so few female SFF artists, especially since the art directors at the publishing houses are often women, e.g. Lauren Panepinto or Irene Gallo. This raises a few additional questions: Are there fewer women commercial artists in general? Do women illustrators tend to work in other areas, e.g. children’s books, comics, greeting cards, fashion illustration, etc…? Are women pressured to work in those areas or do they work there willingly? Is there a conscious or subconscious bias against female artists at publishing houses?

Phantom is correct that publishers prefer to work with established artists, which is e.g. why Bob Eggleton or Larry Elmore or Michael Whelan (who doesn’t appear here) have been around for decades. The question is, are those established artists more likely to be men and if so, why? One possible explanation I can think of is that cover art was often supposed to appeal to men, so maybe male artists were believed to be more likely to produce art that appeals to men. Though pulp artist Margaret Brundage and her scantily clad damsels in distress would belie that idea.

For example, the ridiculous clinch covers featuring a half-naked man engaged in a torrid embrace with a woman about to fall out of a dress of dubious historical accuracy, that were common on romance novel covers into the 1990s, were never actually supposed to appeal to the overwhelmingly female readers, but to the overwhelmingly male truck drivers working at the distribution companies, who stacked paperback spinner racks at drugstores, gorcery stores, etc…. The distributors and their truck drivers are long gone, but their taste continues to influence book covers via established artists that have been around for a long time. Similarly, the tendency for YA novels to feature a girl in a ball gown on the cover, even if no ball gown ever features in the novels, was supposedly due to the (female) YA buyer at Barnes & Noble really liking those covers. Even Baen’s famously awful covers must appeal to someone. And interestingly, I see a lot of self-published science fiction authors attempting to imitate Baen’s covers rather than the IMO much better covers of Tor or Orbit or Roc or DAW.

Besides, there are several established and popular female SFF artists, e.g. Julie Dillon, Galen Dara, Cynthia Sheppard, Kinuko Kraft, Rowena Morrill, but for some reason none of their covers appear here.

The last point, in particular, raises an issue with having an award for book covers. If this was a serious award (e.g. if there was a Hugo for Best Cover rather than Best Artist), then by not looking at a body of work, the nominees are likely to skew more male – which wouldn’t be good. The Hugo awards “Best Professional Artist” and while I’ve found that an annoying category, it is possibly a better option than “Best Cover”.

Also, by way of comparison, I looked for some different kind of data here:

I looked at picture books primarily because illustrators are credited, often with equal billing as the author (or the artist is the author). As picture books are aimed at children, we might expect to find more women represented because of traditional gender roles and stereotypes (maybe).

I didn’t chase down the bios of these artists, and so just did a quick count using traditional female names. If in doubt, I counted the name as maybe not a woman.

Of the 62 names I counted, 28 had female names. The number of women artists listed is probably a bit higher. Either way, it looks like a very plausible 50/50 split.

That means we can throw away as implausible the idea that women just don’t pursue book illustration as a career or that women somehow can’t cope with the publishing industry or a whole bunch of other  nonsense. I’ve also been looking for data on numbers of art-directors at publishing houses that are women but without much success. I think many may be women but that is just an impression I’ve got from a few notable names.

Perhaps more plausibly, is whether SF/F art in general has skewed male. That sounds plausible but rests on stereotypes of fandom being inherently male that are dubious. Alternatively, slow turnover of artists into the field may have resulted in the artists publishers turn to being predominately male because of conditions that existed 20-30 years ago.