I recently read The Winter Mantle and posted a review. I was persuaded to give the book a go because its author, Elizabeth Chadwick, is regularly recommended on the Historical Novel Society (HNS) discussion list. I have always been put off her books previously by the heavy romance emphasis in the packaging. (‘Romance’ is used in this context in its modern meaning, that of a male-female love story).
For example, the back cover blurb says,
“Normandy 1067 - William may have conquered England, but it is a conquest of a different kind that one English earl has in mind..... From the moment he catches sight of Judith..... he knows he has found his future wife. But is the match between Saxon earl and Norman lady made in heaven or hell?”
Hmmm. That sort of breathless prose is pretty effective at making me put the book back on the shelf and go looking for something else.
The cover picture features a lady in a long cloak gazing across a river at a knight on horseback, with a castle rising dreamily out of mists in the background. Hmmm again.
The opening scene features Judith being dressed by her maid and selecting her best clothes and jewellery. By page 4 her attention has been caught by a big, muscular, handsome young man astride a powerful chestnut stallion. By page 11, said handsome young man (who is Waltheof, the English earl of the back cover blurb) has noticed Judith and is sufficiently attracted to her “to make him shift on the bench and adjust his braies*.”
This is a classic romance opening, and the cover blurb had already primed me to expect a romance. Hmmm again. I like some romance in a story, and tend to miss it if it’s entirely absent, but I’m not a great reader of novels where a boy-meets-girl or he-loves-me-he-loves-me-not storyline has to carry the entire plot all by itself. However, I have some faith in the HNS discussion list, and the presence of an Author’s Note was an encouraging sign. So I persevered, and am pleased that I did because the book was considerably more interesting than the beginning and the packaging had implied, as you can see in my review.
This isn’t an isolated incident. When I was hesitating over whether to give The Winter Mantle a try, I was reminded that similar romance-heavy packaging had deterred me from reading Sharon Penman’s historical novels for years. (I only discovered her when someone told me my battle scenes resembled hers). I like Sharon Penman’s novels a lot, especially the Welsh trilogy of Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning, and was very annoyed that the packaging had put me off them for so long.
The back cover blurb from Here Be Dragons says,
“Joanna, a Princess caught between two warring worlds.... and torn between two loves...... The battle-torn land could not be more ravaged than her troubled, turbulent heart, and in a moment of confused, guilty passion that she will never forget, Joanna risks her peace of mind, her freedom.....even her life.”
The cover picture is a fine art painting showing a pensive lady doing embroidery in a garden.
Well, once I’d read the book I could see where the blurb writer and cover artist got this from, but I don’t think it gives a fair picture of the novel, which deals with Llewelyn the Great, King John, Welsh and Norman-French culture and the epic military and political events of the time, as well as with Joanna and her emotional turmoil. Had the packaging given more emphasis to the history and less to the romance element, I’d have found it much more attractive.
I wonder how many more good books I’ve missed because they’ve been misleadingly packaged as ‘romance’? I’m learning to ignore cover blurbs and cover art and look for the Author’s Note instead, but I don’t suppose that’s the intended effect. (Though it could be worse; few modern covers are as sensational as this one from the 1950s, which it seems also didn't reflect the content of the book.)
I've said earlier, in the context of historical accuracy, that I like a 'does what it says on the tin' approach so that I can see what sort of book it is and judge whether it's likely to suit my tastes. It seems to me that cover art and cover copy that doesn't reflect the content of the book makes it harder to identify new books that I might like, and has the unfortunate tendency to send me back to the safe harbour of an author whose work I'm already familiar with.
Does anyone else react to covers this way? What appeals to you, and what prompts you to put the book right back on the shelf?
*Braies: medieval equivalent of underpants, not unlike boxer shorts but with a drawstring or belt at the waist instead of elastic.