Aug 6 2008 8:17am

SF/F Book Cover Review, Hugo Edition: Brasyl

Part three of our review of the covers for the 2008 Hugo nominees, after which we’re rubbing our eyes and squinting very much. Part one is here, and part two is here.

Brasyl by Ian McDonald (US: Pyr; UK: Gollancz)
U.S. Edition Design by Jacqueline Cooke, illustration by Stephan Martiniere
U.K. Edition Design by Dominic Harman.

The synopsis this time comes directly from the author, via Pyr-o-mania: “My book Brasyl is set in present-day Brazil (or what seems like it), in Sao Paulo 2032, and in 1732 Brazil just before the Jesuits were expelled. It revolves around the way quantum computing opens up multiple parallel universes... and, of course, a whole lot more besides.”

The design for this book is straightforward and simple, featuring a classic layout: the cover is split into thirds, with the title and author taking up the top third. The lower two-thrids of the cover are given over to a stunning Stephan Martiniere illustration depicting a future city scene. This is clearly a case where the illustrator was hired to do what he does best (or one of the many things he does best—Martiniere is everywhere!): beautiful, compelling, and engaging future or fantastic city scenes. This is clearly a city in Brazil: sex for sale, palm trees, and a smattering of Portuguese text here or there; but thrust into a neon, fast-paced, always-on-and-always-open near future. The composition of the illustration takes into consideration the needs of a book cover: lots of space with a uniform value (or, the lightness or darkness of a color) around the top and bottom, which makes it easy for a designer to lay in type on top of it; a clearly defined focal point, and lots of little details (or ‘sprinkles’, as an old art school acquaintance of mine used to say) to draw you into the painting and keep your attention firmly in its grasp.

The neon/florescent color scheme for both the painting and the type certainly communicates a sense of electric vibration, which ties in nicely with the concept of quantum computing (and certainly reminds us of Terry Gilliam’s film by the same name). Perhaps florescent or otherwise special inks were used in printing—the final effect is blindingly intense. Overlaying three instances of the title, off-register with each other and in three different neon colors adds to this vibration. It also complements the bustle depicted in the street scene nicely. Additionally, the three instances of the title relate conceptually to the three-story structure of the novel. While the choice of typefaces is somewhat orthodox, and could be perceived as boring under other circumstances, I think it works in this case: anything more complicated or ornate for the title would have rendered it much harder to read, when coupled with the three-instance treatment; and the simplicity and directness of the sans-serif typeface used for the author’s name serves as a nice contrast to the busy, hectic feel of the title proper. It also adds a solid, light-valued area to the top of the composition, which helps balance out the lightest areas of the illustration towards the bottom, and tie the composition together a little better.

Brasyl UK editionThe U.K. trade paperback is also a strong showing. What it may give up in conceptual relevance to the novel it makes up for in terms of presence. Most of this is due to the die-cut, iridescent cover which opens to reveal a lively mash-up of a colorful illustration and images of a Brazilian favela (or slum), with cover blurbs on the inside front cover. Between the odd spelling for ‘Brasyl’, the big, blocky sans-serif type, and the iridescent cover, I can see this book positively popping off the shelves when face out. Brasyl UK edition inside front cover

Yet again, thanks to Jamie Stafford-Hill for the helping hand with these first posts.
The images of the U.K. cover are courtesy of James Bloomer, via his blog, Big Dumb Object.

Tomorrow I’ll post Rollback, by Robert J. Sawyer. As it’s a Tor book, I won’t be reviewing this one, instead I’ll be relying on you guys to give us some juicy feedback. If you’d like to submit a review for this book’s cover, or for The Last Colony, by John Scalzi, check out the rules of the game, and drop me a line at pablo dot defendini at tor dot com.

Peter Hollo
1. raven
The UK cover art is by Dominic Harman. And it is lovely innit! I actually prefer both the UK cover for this and (very much indeed) for River of Gods to the Martiniere ones, which are just too busy to me. And I hate the lettering on the above Pyr edition. I guess it's a US thing...

Nice to read the Chabon review - one of the few US covers I'm actively jealous of. Here in Aus we get some of each, but mostly UK editions, and mostly I'm happy with that.
Christine Evelyn Squires
2. ces
I think the Brasyl cover is one of the best covers Martiniere has done! My only wish is that it wasn't quite so dark in the upper lefthand corner. And that the type was smaller.
eric orchard
3. orchard
In these reviews I can't separate my fan self from a more objective self. I'm a big fan of Martiniere and might purchase this book just for his picture. It's what I look for in a book cover: a leaping off point into another world. I'm wondering what everyone else's criteria is.
Pablo Defendini
4. pablodefendini
@raven-- added, thanks!
@ces-- well, the dark areas do serve their purpose, the leave a relatively clean space for type to be placed by the designer.
Pablo Defendini
5. pablodefendini
@orchard-- I had the same problem. I'm a huge Martiniere fan!
JS Bangs
6. jaspax
That UK cover is fantastic. Why do the Brits get all the good covers?
Liza .
7. aedifica
The UK cover is nice to look at, but I avoid like the plague any book with cutouts on the cover--they don't last well. So between the two, I much prefer the US edition which is also nice to look at and doesn't leave me with fears of what will become of the book in a few years.

(That is, I admit I do occasionally buy books with cutout covers, but only if it's a book I really want and that's the only option.)
Christine Evelyn Squires
8. ces
Pablo, I was speaking of the cover as a digital painting, not as a cover, when I was talking about the upper lefthand corner. And I still wish the type was smaller. And now that I think about, I wish the type was a different colour - the white is too stark for me.

And there is no way that the British cover would entice to even pick up the book, let alone buy it.
Jeff Hentosz
9. Hentosz
Wow, talk about different strokes :-). Love the UK cover and would defintitely pick it up. The US cover says one thing to me as a shopper approaching the shelf: "for fans of Blade Runner only." The UK design, by contrast, strikes me as one that much less specifically "types" the content, and is thereby more likely to invite further investigation.

One detail I really like about the UK is the way the counters (inside negative spaces) of the B, R and A are incorporated into the architecture of the slumscape.
Tara Chang
10. tlchang
I like the look of the UK cover, but I also try to avoid buying books with diecuts - they tear on my shelves too easily.

Is there any way that the US cover can be 'clickable' to see a larger image? (Long day, not a huge monitor, eyes would like to strain less...) I do love the type concept - three time periods, three overlapping titles. That kind of symbology makes me unaccountably happy.
Pablo Defendini
11. pablodefendini
@JSbangs #790-(wtf? anybody else seeing this crazy comment numbering?) Heh, yes, the Brits (particularly these Gollancz cats) do kick some serious ass. Have you seen these bad boys? Swoon.

@tlchang #990- The clickable larger image is a fantastic suggestion. I'll look into it.

@ces #988- I find it hard to make the distinction you're making. The cover illustration is a piece of commercial art that was commissioned to serve a purpose. As such, it should conform to the needs of the job. One of those needs is to accommodate type for the title, author, and any additional information that the publisher (be it via the art director, editor, marketing person, etc.) deems necessary in order to sell the book. Martiniere clearly understands this, and plans his work accordingly. That's one of the things that makes him a great illustrator.
As much as I love and appreciate illustrations on their own terms (put a Manchess, a Holland, a DeSeve, a Wyeth, an Arisman, or a Rockwell on the wall and plant me in front of it, and I can stand there for a whiiiile), it's important to bear in mind that they are not just paintings for painting's sake, as they would be were they the product of a so-called 'fine artist' (I use 'fine artist' begrudgingly, for lack of a better term--most illustrators are finer painters than many of the so-called 'fine artists' working out there today).
As a designer who's been faced with the frustration of having to place type over a too-crowded illustration, and therefore being forced to make some very tough and compromising desicions (usually resulting in what we call a flustercuck--yes, that's the technical term), I can tell you that I really appreciate the fact that Martiniere has the presence of mind to keep these considerations at the foremost of his thought process when planning a composition.
"And there is no way that the British cover would entice to even pick up the book, let alone buy it."

Why not? I mean, I prefer the US version as well, but the UK version is pretty damn nifty too, at least in my opinion. One of the ideas behind this series is to open up these kinds of conversations, but it's not helpful if you don't qualify your proclamations with the thought process behind them. Share your thoughts!

@Hentoz #989- That's a great point about the counters on the title for the UK version. It's attention to little details like that (those 'sprinkles' again) that really help push a design over the top.
Andy Leighton
12. andyl
The cutout was only on the UK trade paperback. The hardcover did not have the cutout and nor did it have the iridescent background to the cover - it was plain white if I remember correctly. There was a blue glow around the lettering and the inside cover painting was visible as the lettering. All in all I think it does not work as well.

It appears that Gollancz have changed the mass market paperback a bit. The cover art work is the inside cover art (the bit behind the cutout) but they have changed the typography of the title.

The paperback cover is viewable at - and shows an interesting choice of front cover blurb.
Jeff Hentosz
13. Hentosz
@991: Pablo, yes I noticed the crazy comment numbering last night, about a half hour before I posted my comment. I assumed you guys were experimenting with a new paradigm in web conversation dynamics that I, frankly, just didn't get. XD

BTW, the numbering is as it should be when I preview the comment. Then, blooey.
Christine Evelyn Squires
14. ces
Pablo, the first time I saw the cover of Brasyl it wasn't displayed as a book cover - i.e., it was just the painting. No type or anything was on it. And I fell in love with it! However, your review displays it as a cover. So I went to Martiniere's site and sat looking at it as just a painting and then came back here and looked at it as a cover. And that is how I made my distinction. I realize the realities of book covers - and that most publishers (and even readers) don't consider them pieces of art. And yes, Martiniere is not stupid, he's been doing covers for a long time, and he wants to put food on his table, so he designs his covers to please publishers.

As for the British cover - what can I say? It just doesn't grab me. It's bland. I hate having to turn my head 90 degrees to read the name of the book. There's nothing going on in it. I just don't like it.

As I've stated many times in conversations in Lou Anders' blogs when the topic of what sells books and are book covers art and why do I pick up one book and not another, it's the cover art that entices me to pick up a book in a store, regardless of whether I have read the author before or not. For example, even though I love Heinlein there are many of his books I haven't read just because the cover was not enticing. On the other hand, I do read a couple of other authors' books whenever they are released even though I hate the covers simply because I do like them because they are a "light" read and I don't need to use my brain to read them.

Does this help?

BTW - Your answer to me was very informative, and obviously well thought out. Thank you!
Pablo Defendini
15. pablodefendini
@ces #994- Yep, helps tons. Thanks for the clarification!

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