A Tale of Two Covers: Swords Against Darkness

A Tale of Two Covers: Swords Against Darkness

Swords Against Darkness Andrew Offutt-small Swords Against Darkness Paula Guran-small

Last September we reported here on the massive stack of research material Paula Guran was digesting in a noble attempt to produce the ultimate modern Swords & Sorcery anthology. The project, Swords Against Darkness, now has a cover (above right), and a release date (July). It does not (yet) have a table of contents. But when it does, you’ll be the first to know.

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to put Paula’s cover side by side with its namesake, Andrew J. Offutt’s groundbreaking 1977 paperback anthology from Zebra, which spawned a series of five books containing original S&S tales from Poul Anderson, Tanith Lee, Charles R. Saunders, Orson Scott Card, Charles de Lint, Diana L. Paxson, Keith Taylor, Manly Wade Wellman, Richard L. Tierney, David Drake, Ramsey Campbell, Andre Norton, and many others. Paula’s new anthology is twice as long as that slender paperback, and will come crammed with classic stories by Leigh Brackett, Robert E. Howard, C.L. Moore, Michael Moorcock, Tanith Lee, Steven Erikson, and many others.

Of course, Offutt’s version also boasted an original cover by the great Frank Frazetta, and it’s hard to compete with that. The new cover goes for a more modern look and, while I’m old-school enough to wish for cover art instead of a photo edit, I think it does the job well enough. Here’s the back cover text.

[Click the images for bigger versions.]

Flashing swords and fearsome magicks… high adventure and wondrous wizardry… dread monsters and vast rewards…

Tales of swashbuckling sword and sorcery at their best offer keen wit, ingenious perception, freewheeling imagination, and canny invention. From its swashbuckling beginnings of good versus evil battles to clashes of more nuanced principles set in complex settings to havoc shaped by grittier perspectives, ambiguous morality, deep history and expansive worldbuilding ― readers continue to be thrilled by the exploits of great warriors and mighty mages.

Swords Against Darkness: an epic anthology of short stories and novellas from classic to modern, each tale a memorable vision from masters of mistresses of heroic fantasy past and present!

Swords Against Darkness was published by Zebra Books in February 1977. It is 288 pages, priced at $1.95. The cover is by Frank Frazetta.

Swords Against Darkness will be published by Prime Books on July 11, 2017. It is 576 pages, priced at $19.95 in trade paperback.

Our previous articles in the Tale of Two Covers series include:

The Last Page by Anthony Huso
Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner
Ellen Kushner on Basilisk
Shadows and Tall Trees 7 edited by Michael Kelly
Alan Baxter’s Crow Shine and Sarah Remy’s The Bone Cave

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Forging & Shaping

Robert E. Howard, “The Tower of the Elephant”
C. L. Moore, “Hellsgarde”
Clark Ashton Smith, “The Dark Eidolon”
Jack Vance, “Liane the Wayfarer”
Leigh Brackett, “Black Amazon of Mars”
Fritz Leiber, “Ill Met in Lankhmar”
Michael Moorcock, “While the Gods Laugh”

Normalizing & Annealing

Tanith Lee, “Hero at the Gates”
C. J. Cherryh, “A Thief in Korianth”
Karl Edward Wagner, “Undertow”
Katherine Kurtz, “Swords Against the Marluk”
Mercedes Lackey, “Out of the Deep”
Michael Shea, “Epistle from Lebanoi”
James Enge, “Payment Deferred”
John Balestra, “The Swords of Her Heart” (original)

Tempering & Sharpening

Joanna Russ, “Bluestocking”
Samuel R. Delany, “The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers”
Elizabeth Moon, “First Blood”
Saladin Ahmed, “Where Virtue Lives”
Scott Lynch, “The Effigy Engine: A Tale of the Red Hats”
Steven Erikson, “Goats of Glory”
Elizabeth Bear, “The Ghost Makers”
Kameron Hurley, “The Plague Givers”

From http://paulaguran.com

Joe H.

[reads names on cover; adds to buy list]

Woelf Dietrich

Excited to read this but that cover is offputting. Couldn’t they have hired an artist to paint something? And I see this more and more these days, awesome stories and writers but wrapped in awful photoshopped covers that mess up the tone of the stories completely and add nothing. This is such a pity.

Joe H.

OK, and now seeing the full ToC, I’m even more interested. My only regret is that it’s not the size of one of the recent VanderMeer collections.

(I’m especially happy to see Cherryh’s “A Thief in Korianth,” which was originally written for one of Lin Carter’s Flashing Swords anthologies. It’s a great little story.)

Seems like a very strong line-up!

Alas, there are far better Lankhmar stories. I know it was award winning, but I think that was more in recognition of all that Leiber had written before rather than because “Ill Met” was the best of them.

R.K. Robinson

I prefer the older cover, by a wide margin, and I’m with Woelf on covers in general. Photo covers, and photoshopped images are cheaper, but they look it. Regardless any theme of her other covers, this should have had a classic fantasy S&S painted cover.

A. Walter

I’m a big fan of Paula Guran’s anthologies, but that cover seems pretty generic. Especially when placed side by side with the Frazetta. I’ll definitely be buying it. I also agree with Howard Andrew Jones that the anthology could have picked a better Lankhmar story.


I very much like Paula’s choices and especially her division of the stories into 3 sections with titles suggesting maturing of S&S.

Personally, I too prefer the previous cover (as John mentioned, Frazetta is hard to beat), but I strongly suspect there are issues of age and gender involved. For an audience that is younger and/or female, preferences might lean differently. And if sales of previous anthologies suggest that the newer cover will sell better, then I’m all for it. If the end result is more people discovering these authors and then seeking out their other stories & books, that’s great.

Bob Byrne

Looks like a cover for a paranormal romance fantasy book. Ugh.

‘While the Gods Laugh’ – the story thought brought Moonglum into the Elric saga.

Woelf Dietrich

John, if she has a winning recipe going, by all means, I agree. Don’t mess with it and I wish her good luck. But I don’t know her work and I wouldn’t have given the cover a second glance. There’s just something more inviting and magical about a painted cover. It also informs expectations of what you’ll find between the covers and I love that.

I will second or third or fourth the cover critique. It sure doesn’t speak to me. But maybe the publisher’s trying to appeal to readers other than middle-aged male sword-and-sorcery fans.

I am heartily sick of photoshop covers in any case, although I’m probably going to get some more slapped on my upcoming books myself… I sure hope that the photoshop trend ends. Soon.

Joe H.

Honestly, for me the cover isn’t that big of a deal because I’ll be reading it on my Kindle. Having said which, I don’t actually hate it, especially if, as Jeffrey Rogers said above, it gets the book into more hands.

I’m also quite pleased to see “The Dark Eidolon”, which is probably my favorite CAS story. A bit surprised there’s no Dunsany, though.


I was dreading this, but now that I see the line up, I think she made some good choices. There are even some that I haven’t read 🙂

The cover is awful, though. They should have gotten Justin Sweet, but he would have cost them money.

Sarah Avery

That’s one of my favorite Enge stories. In a couple of months, my students will be reading it. Can’t wait to see what they make of it.

The cover reads to me like an attempt to balance two distinct reading constituencies. When I was growing up in the genre, I got the impression that sword and sorcery was that thing John Norman was doing in his Gor books, which is to say, that the genre was actively hostile to me. So I didn’t start reading it until much later, when I finally got that C.L. Moore had been a S&S writer all along. So in part, that cover is an effort to attract women to the subgenre who might not otherwise think they’re welcome. And the cheesecake nature of the image seems to me a rather cynical effort to offer something compensatory to men who’ve been reading S&S for years — Sorry you have to put up with a woman on the cover, but hey, at least she’s wearing nothing under that cloak. Which, if I’m right, says more about how marketing people see male readers than it does about male readers themselves.

Alas, photoshop covers are too cheap to go away in the foreseeable future. Well, if the impractical girl who’s naked under her cloak and doesn’t have anything to hang a sheath for that knife on can send a few cents a copy of shared royalties to James Enge, then more power to her.


Wait, she’s naked! That might change my opinion of the cover. Alas, when I zoom in I can’t confirm she’s actually nude. Damn! And what’s with the aqua stink coming off her? You think with a title like Swords Against Darkness the cubicle dweller who Photoshopped the cover would have thought to include, I don’t know, maybe a sword? Or is this one of those Getty or Shutterstock stock photos? I think we are expecting too much, though. The book is an anthology of short stories after all.


I don’t care for most mainstream book covers anymore. Generally generic, lazy, photoshopped garbage as far as I’m concerned. Some Historical Adventure fiction still display excellent, action oriented art on the covers, especially in the U.K. Obviously I’m completely wrong about cover art, as books are still selling just fine without any real art on the cover. What do I know? I’m really not the target demographic anyway; 51 year old male, a friggin dinosaur. I do own all five of the original SAD anthologies, and I would like to scoop up the new one as well. But not based on the cover art. Only because of the mention here and the list of authors in the TOC.

James McGlothlin

I doubt that this cover is trying, at all, to reach any constituency other than a younger crowd. I don’t bemoan that. Publishers need to do what they can to make book sales.

Joe H.

I actually get kind of a JRPG vibe from the artwork — something about the weapon designs, mostly, that look like they could’ve come from one of the recent Final Fantasy games.

(And I’m pretty sure she has a bow slung across her back? The straight line would be the bowstring.)

But, as I said, if it gets copies into hands that might not otherwise pick it up, that makes me happy.


IMO the second cover is stupid and horrible. I could do that in 30 mins with poser and the cheapest computer effects, don’t even need photoshop, lots of freeware and competitor stuff can do the major effects and color tricks.

IMO again, it should be considered insulting if any sort of “Professional” outlet puts out something like that. Forgiven for a non-professional, but even then barely…

Criminal, too…

We have a flood of artists struggling for any job any time. Almost any talent, taste, price. Many inspired as kids from stuff printed in the 70s era.

Check out Deviant Art. I’ll note it now, I’ll note it later.

In the past the barrier was publishing. It was never about the cost of the art but the cost of the reproduction, the photolithography that’s made more expensive and quadrupled (4 color) for color stuff. Now that its electronic or computer direct to print there should be an explosion in illustrations, of artists hired. With today’s internet speeds and computer memory having a cover and maybe a few interior illustrations is nothing.

But – publishers cut their own throat (One man’s opinion) by going the “Politically Correct” route so the market collapsed – late 70s, early 80s shift… The response to lower sales was to shrink the market, not realize they did anything wrong. Cheapening the product is another result. I’m sure there’s also the idolization of the written word – the attitude that it must be so superior as to stand on its own by literary merit, that it might be seen as diminished if it ‘needs’ illustration… But again a dodge to claim they don’t need illustration fees.

I’m self-publishing, still doing the ‘day job’, I’m nowhere near as rich as I’d hoped I’d be at this stage of my life – but I can manage hiring an artist once in a while to do some illustrations for something I’m serious enough about to dare toss into that huge pile of print out there already and hope others will find it and like it enough to buy it. My hinderance is making the stories -from time to write and making something good- not hiring the artist.

And – I don’t know the ‘story’ behind this illustration – but I’d bet that publishers charge the writers still (out of royalties) for the illustration, even bleah stuff like this, (or countless repourposed covers from clip art sites that maybe have the copyright) the same rates at least they’d charge to hire a new artist.

For the record, I’m practicing what I’m preaching – I found a good artist to illustrate one of my projects. (a historical fiction character inspired in a fit of rage at the recent “Solomon Kane” movie) This is because I’m self-publishing and want to make a statement that I am that serious about my own writings. I do art also, but I am a storyteller first. This option allows me to refine my sub-professional drawing skill to work out illustrations for my “Sword and Sorcery” style character and those stories. Even as I improve I’ll keep commissioning that artist for said historical character.

Again, check out art sites like Deviant Art – you’ll find a mountain of good artists who can do scifi, fantasy, 3d stuff, Anime both American and ‘authentic’ ones – virtually all available for commission at sane rates. You might find a long term ‘professional friend’ who’ll do your stories long term and history might remember it as “Dunsany/Sime” or “Carroll/Tenniel” They’ll need some money but the overall time and effort you put into a story, a few bucks for an image, some internal illustrations is nothing. We artists need to stick together and now more than ever writers should find artists and collaborate.

Sarah Avery

NOLAbert, my sense of the marketing world is that nudity that can be inferred is usually nudity intended. Marketing people are very forthright about the fact that sex sells, and what they think that means they ought to do.

GreenGestalt, the point I find myself most emphatically in agreement about is that artists and authors should stick together. The artist I commissioned for my self-publishing project, Kate Baylay, enjoyed being able to discuss cover art and illustration possibilities directly with an author. I loved ending up with cover art that’s striking and unique, and that is actually faithful to the book I wrote. She was worth every penny. And since that book has come out, we’ve been cross-promoting on Twitter whenever reasonable and non-spammy occasions come up. It’s a professional alliance I’m glad to have.


That cover – how to misfire in the attempt to reach your audience. It doesn’t say ‘Sword and Sorcery’, it say’s urban fantasy even if there are no tats or torn jeans. I get that it fits the series, but I think it’s going to miss its mark.

I was going to continue on ‘that aint the right cover for that, and it’s not’ but conversions led to commissioning cover art and I had to dive into that. I’m the guy who created the sword and planet ‘Strange Worlds Anthology’ http://www.strangeworldsanthology.com and more recently I have wrapped up an Anthology with Reality Skimming Press “The MEGAN Survival Anthology” , (I’m their pet artist ) a ‘colonists crash on the wrong planet with space dinosaurs’ kind of thing.

As an artist/writer I figured out that other self publishers needed cover art that didn’t cost a bomb or was limited to whatever photo could be found online. So I’m going to hang my shingle for a moment http://www.quick-covers.com (original painted cover art ) & http://www.jeffdoten.com


While I do love a good old-fashioned painting, maybe new-fangled covers incorporating photography aren’t necessarily cheap quick slap-dash efforts….

Thomas Parker

There is literally nothing that will appeal to everyone, but one (potential) buyer’s opinion – this cover is dull. There’s nothing individual or personal about it; it seems untouched by human hands.


Sarah – Thanks! Glad you are part of the solution here. If the google search did justice you have an artist who does work reminiscent of art deco era art, Beardsley, Sime, Neilsen… Awesome! Makes me want to pick something up and look into it – whatever $ you paid your artist it is worth it!

Jefferycrogers – that link…


Froot. of. the… GAWDZ….


Seriously, I have a low opinion of TOR and only fear of being banned here stops me from giving my full uncensored opinion. But ranting like a stereotypical 4 chan meets something awful flame war and finding a way to hack wordpress to post classic disgusto net memes for 10 pages would certainly deserve it. Also the foam would likely ruin my keyboard/tablet and the screaming I’d be doing typing it would get me trouble.

Having said that, I thank you for your link.
They have shown on their own how uncreative and wasteful of talent to just plod on soullessly and ram a ‘politically correct’ agenda far better than I could express.

Now, I myself am for 3d assistance for work and using 3d artwork -if done right-
Case in point, the British comics have used it in the past and present. “Slaine: The Book of Invasions” series is my favorite. They used 3d software (Poser) and lots of major fantasy props to get the characters and perspective perfect, then painted over them digitally. They did this to attempt to capture Bisley’s epic style, which proved to laborious for comic art during the groundbreaking “Slaine: The Horned God”.

BUT – they were good artists who could do a sketch I’d consider my best work ever and they knew what they were doing – color/composition, etc.

Now…. FROOT of Da GawDZ…. How MUCH money did TOR FLUSH on that setup?

Uh, calm down, talking to myself – just go to Daz 3d – or Renderosity…

For what had to be thousands of dollars they could have gone to Daz or Renderosity and either got the software and props for a few hundred or less – or just looked at lots of dedicated 3d artists and submitted a commission. $100 would get you 90% that inside a day and be as good. And they’d be throwing battery acid at each other – by that I mean competing fiercely- wanting to do your next book and make illustrations.

The Dragon man was cool – but again – try Pixologic – the guys that make Zbrush – again check out their gallery. Email an artist, attaching a crude stick figure sketch. “I want a gecko/dragon man for a cover of my book” – you’d probably get them doing it just for fun, sending a 90% completed, watermarked image, drooling at the hopes of getting some $ and their names in credits for a book, especially if it’s published.

– by “Fruit of the Gawdz” I’m referring to a men’s magazine I read from way way back, collector’s issue from pile at used bookstore somewhere – Neat pictorial in it, late 70s periodical published by that distinguished southern gentleman, Larry Flynt. Warning, remember that internet meme “What has been seen…” with the shocked kittycat, Lol?

There are lots of neat, professional artists out there who need that extra $100 now and again so they can do two jobs not three and have time for their art, some working down to ONE job with frequent commissions. They are a few emails and a small amount of money via PayPal away.

Now, John, I’m not trying to troll here – I sent an email the other day, but maybe you don’t use that one anymore…

I’d like to do an article for this site.

“Advice for Writers on finding and commissioning professional artwork for your stories”

My own donation. I won’t pander my own stuff, I’ll use some famous examples and make up some new stuff for it. My own stuff would doubtless melt some ‘precious individual snowflakes’ this place, they can follow the link on my name if they care. And what I’ve inflicted so far is only a dress rehearsal… But I can do general purpose also! Case in point I’d draw out a few pics for an imagined novel based on the Arthurian quest for the Holy Grail to do symbolist/iconic art and use Poser+image editing software right to do a steampunk scene – hint back at a comment I did on an article here on real sword fighting.

But the article would be advice on communicating with artists for commissioning artwork for stories. For initial contact without ending up in the trash email bin. For formulating ideas so you don’t expect them to read your book. And while not an art lesson some ideas on what to ask for, what to expect, ideas on what to shoot for.

Done in the spirit of public service to the genre.

It’s unfair but books DO need good covers. And while I’m part of the anti-PC backlash overall we have to stick together as artists, writers… Those horrible vapid covers are worse for the industry today than any revolver/gladius point throwback to the “Guy, Girl and Goon” pulp cliches ever could be. At least the non-pc Men’s Adventure mag pic with the crazy filed teeth african shaman menacing a pretty blonde lady with a snake is exciting, grabs your attention even if it makes Mr Charles Saunders vent Ire and Brimstone.

Case in point, that link cover – forced myself to look at it again, read more… (1-3 could be done without reshooting, via photo software and 3d)

Letters at TOP this title. It don’t work at the bottom this one. Big words top, if have to be small words at very bottom. Title at bottom will not work here, I can tell with one glance.
Put the lady down and offset. No double entendre intended. I mean down and offset, loosely on golden ratio. Challenging but possible to do this for both the front cover accounting for text and the bigger picture.
Add some kind of background. A castle in the background – use a good 3d castle, not stock photos of ruins – or some dungeon with like scary glowing eyes and a mostly darkness covered orc leering from a doorway. Scary woods with a dragon or witches…
Some expression on the lady’s face. This goes to –
Haven’t read the novel (and this is part of what I’m getting at) what’s the mood? – is she a brave adventurer? – or with the preggo pic a desperate single mother? Why should potential readers see in the cover to catch their eye and make them want to pick it up and thumb through it at Barnes and Noble or mmmabye actually BUY it?

Theodric the Obscure

Great selections, but seeing those two covers side-by-side, I can’t get over how much we live in an age of SUCK when compared to the covers of the 70s. Why can’t we have nice things today?


GreenGestalt. I can answer how much Tor spent on those book covers, to the penny. Zero. Peter Brett’s Demon Cycle is published by Voyager (via Harper/Collins) NOT Tor. Tor.com is just a house organ, but they do publish stories/articles that have no business connection with them.

Now, as to -why- they would choose those particular covers instead of shopping around on DeviantArt … That’s actually a smart decision to keep the same cover artist to provide a unified look to your series. Honestly, from a marketing strategy, it’s probably better to have a mediocre to decent artist handle your 5 to 7 book opus, than having a hot artist who can only crank out one piece of your vision forcing you to mix it up for the rest.


Thanks for your reply.

Nothing is forever – businesses go in and out and mediocre operations can evaporate or become unreliable just as much as any good, genius. The only way to ensure you have the same artist every single cover is to have him do a series of covers. Even during the ‘good’ times I am pining for, I have lots of odd covers for early works of good authors. It adds to the spice, the variety. If you work out an epic and aren’t making it up as you go along, you could propose a cover reflecting of each work (1. this is where Torrg the Worrior is raised on the slopes of Glorn 2. This is where Torrg the Worrior is a thief in the City of Grolg….7. This is where Torrg the King faces the Wizard Red Dagon before the age of Heroes ends…)

I still assert the covers have “Suckage”

The one with the Demon mask is cool – and thumbs up to whoever sculpted it – but again any author wants such a cover, probably for a hundred or so can go to Pixologic, look into the galleries and email and artist and have him make something with “Z-brush” including cool background scenes pretty quick. Depends on what you ask, what works, etc.

But this cover and the lady with the blue robe – sorry – pure suckage.

Now, to be fair, the first cover is one of the things I ordinarily am opposed to; a re-purposed cover. That image – “Flame Demon” believe it or not Ballantine books actually just told Frazetta “Just send us one of your covers – we’ll buy it and have our authors make a story based on it!!!” This is after some pre-internet Trolls messed with him over Roman themed illustrations and Tolkien fans drove him away…

It’d be a neat article on the “Written to match the painting” series of Frazetta’s work.

But Frazetta was the exception. When people buy art from some re-purposing site – only mmmabye do they have the original copyright and the artist who did it years ago gets little if any. Frazetta is the exception. RIP…

Going forward – the covers with the ladies SUCK. Let’s go to the first example: the “Swords against Darkness”

How does it relate to the anthology? How does it speak for the anthology? Is it meant to be some character from the Anthology? Does it grab the reader? Does it reflect the content?

I’m not the only one that gives it the big “F” grade.

Also the placement sucks. That gets me to the next one – the blue lady.

Don’t have time for a huge essay here – I’m actually working on one to help authors (indie ones) not do stuff like this, maybe John will let me put it here.

But – here’s how I’d improve the second cover:

1 – cheap way
A- get the original image and put her down 1/3 and to the left 1/4 or right 1/4. Move the text up top, if anything has to be on the bottom it is small.
B – put in a background – I’d use 3d artwork for a castle, scary forest or dungeon. Mostly just the scenery but try to put a 3rd part of menace in it somewhere, witches or monsters in the background, a mostly shadowed org leering from a portal, etc.

2 – if I re-did it or did it in the first place –

I first would want a quick (1 page) synopsis of the story – then a few paragraphs of descriptions of characters – and from the author some idea of the themes in it.

Let me be creative – and if I had the resources of the pretty lady in the outfit I’d certainly not waste it – I noticed from the text it involved the main character being pregnant and travelling to a city in the beginning. I could work with this good –

What I’d do (assuming limited info) is I’d have her keep the Preggo prop and have her in a more reserved, guarded pose, say her right hand with the wand but lowering it, still a tiny after effect of magic on the tip and her left had covering the top of her belly – she’s at a side pose, but walking towards a city – I could paste a medievalist but fantasy city together with some 3d props, painter effects, and clip art of German towns – She’d be going into a big foreboding city, perhaps some shady characters from a street in the far left leering out for a detail/menace/sub detail. So she’d be powerful but vulnerable. Not really the cliche “heroic fantasy” I like but with modern “Politically Correct” stuff trying to force other appeal, that kind of cover could appeal to women since its showing a “Struggling single mother” as the hero.

The first cover – to try to sell the thing just re-purpose some famous art from one of the stories, most likely the “Tower of the Elephant” which is probably the best story in it…

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