We all know the old adage: “You can’t judge a book by its cover.” But what about judging a book by its blurb (the brief pitch we see on either a book jacket or an online marketplace)?
Many authors have resented book blurbs for decades–especially the brief endorsements made by critics and fellow authors. In 1936, George Orwell wrote scornfully about book blurbs, saying: “Question any thinking person as to why he ‘never reads novels’, and you will usually find that, at bottom, it is because of the disgusting tripe that is written by the blurb-reviewers.”
Yet an examination of book blurbs by NPR traces the origin of the blurb to two of America’s great writers: Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. After reading the first edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, Emerson wrote to Whitman and said, “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” Those words were then printed on the spine of the second edition.
These endorsements can be time-consuming, hyperbolic, and impersonal. Slate cites the tale of Frank McCourt, who wrote in his blurbs that three different books would make readers “claw yourself with pleasure.”
Even the blurbs written by a book’s author or publisher can be rife with challenges. How can you capture the essence of a 400-page book in two or three paragraphs?
That challenge is amplified in science fiction and fantasy. These genres don’t just accept longer books, they encourage them. Science fiction stories often span the length of the universe. Fantasy authors build planets from scratch.
Brevity is often … not their strength.
When you read a good blurb for a science fiction or fantasy book, then, it jumps off the page. It’s no wonder that some of our favorite blurbs come from bestselling books. Whether you’re a writer making your own blurb or an avid reader looking for a compelling new story, these book blurbs can sell you on a novel in just a few sentences.
7 Sci-Fi and Fantasy Book Blurbs That Tell You Everything You Need to Know
The Name of the Wind
“My name is Kvothe, pronounced nearly the same as ‘quothe.’ Names are important as they tell you a great deal about a person. I’ve had more names than anyone has a right to…. I have talked to Gods, loved women, and written songs that make the minstrels weep.
“You may have heard of me.”
Why we love this blurb: Like The Name of the Wind itself, the bestselling novel’s blurb takes its time in developing. The blurb spans both the front and back flaps, but the shortened version of it here captures the essence of what makes it special.
Rather than trying to summarize its plot, The Name of the Wind chooses to use an excerpt from the book as its blurb. It’s a ready-made quote, as the character’s main character Kvothe introduces himself to a biographer called “The Chronicler.”
The best aspect of the blurb, however, is the way it mixes hints at the sort of epic adventure fantasy-lovers adore while providing strong characterization. The reader gets grand promises about what is to come (promises the series is still working to fulfill) and a strong sense of who Kvothe is.
Kvothe is talented and he knows it. He basically calls himself a legend even before he (and The Name of the Wind) became one. It’s a sensational, daring way for then-debut novelist Patrick Rothfuss to introduce himself to the fantasy world, and boy does he deliver.
“It's the twenty-fifth century, and advances in technology have redefined life itself. A person's consciousness can now be stored in the brain and downloaded into a new body (or "sleeve"), making death nothing more than a minor blip on a screen. Onetime U.N. Envoy Takeshi Kovacs has been killed before, but his last death was particularly painful. Resleeved into a body in Bay City (formerly San Francisco), Kovacs is thrown into the dark heart of a shady, far-reaching conspiracy that is vicious even by the standards of a society that treats existence as something that can be bought and sold. For Kovacs, the shell that blew a hole in his chest was only the beginning.”
Why we love this blurb: From the jump, this world feels lived (and died) in. This isn’t some abstract, future version of Earth, and the science fiction aspect of “sleeving” is more than just a concept. You can feel how it affects every aspect of the world, from international relationships to interpersonal society and down to a single man, Takeshi Kovacs.
The blurb doesn’t just position our characters in a world–it positions its book within the genre. While the blurb avoids making overt references to other sci-fi classics, it does evoke the noir mystery of Blade Runner and the potential for revenge like in Frank Herbert’s Dune.
Put that together, and the blurb sets up exactly what readers should expect from Altered Carbon.
“Our Dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes, no matter what stories they tell outside our valley. We hear them sometimes, from travelers passing through. They talk as though we were doing human sacrifice, and he were a real dragon. Of course that’s not true: he may be a wizard and immortal, but he’s still a man, and our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.”
Why we love this blurb: Here’s another excerpt from the book itself. Think about everything you learn in the first paragraph of Naomi Novik’s Uprooted blurb: We learn about the Dragon and the threat of the encroaching Wood. We learn that our characters live in an insulated village and a patriarchal culture, where rumors linger and fathers must defend their daughters.
We learn about the Dragon’s practice of demanding one young woman to serve him every ten years. We learn about the tension between the Dragon and the villagers he protects.
None of this is said explicitly, but it’s easy enough to infer. It lets readers feel like they are already part of the world, letting a local clear up some common misconceptions. It reads like a folklore, which is essential to Novik’s style in Uprooted.
“Six days ago, astronaut Mark Watney became one of the first people to walk on Mars.
“Now, he's sure he'll be the first person to die there.
“After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate while thinking him dead, Mark finds himself stranded and completely alone with no way to even signal Earth that he’s alive—and even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone long before a rescue could arrive.
“Chances are, though, he won't have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment, or plain-old "human error" are much more likely to kill him first.”
Why we love this blurb: Andy Weir’s The Martian follows a fairly simple conceit. How would you survive being abandoned on Mars?
Readers have seen countless versions of this question for centuries. From The Odyssey on, survival stories are timeless. Yet, over generations, we see how technology affects their arcs. Daniel Defoe’s 1719 classic Robinson Crusoe details the struggle of surviving a shipwreck on a foreign island. The 20th century saw the publication of Gary Paulson’s Hatchet, which followed 13-year-old Brian Robeson’s survival efforts after a plane crash.
While Mark Watney’s spaceship did not crash, there’s no question that his story reflects his era. The Martian was published in 2014, as the idea of interplanetary travel began to feel finally within reach.
Given the long history of survival stories, The Martian blurb doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel, and it chooses not to overcomplicate things. Sometimes, as Mark Watney learns on his improvisational quest for survival, the simplest solution is the best one.
Old Man's War
“John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife's grave. Then he joined the army.”
Why we love this blurb: The blurb for John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is longer than this, but really, do you need much more?
From the title alone, it’s clear that Scalzi’s beloved story will take on the old maxim about young men dying for old men’s wars. Three sentences into the blurb, the reader knows how he means to do it.
The opening of Old Man’s War blurb smartly makes use of a classic sci-fi and fantasy theme. Heroes are often talented teens of destiny. Here, however, we meet John Perry–a man past retirement age, not chosen by destiny but choosing his own path.
It’s a unique introduction to a unique series.
The Fifth Season
“This is the way the world ends for the last time.
“It starts with the great red rift across the heart of the world’s sole continent, spewing ash that blots out the sun.
“It starts with death, with a murdered son and a missing daughter.
“It starts with betrayal and long-dormant wounds rising up to fester.
“This is the Stillness, a land familiar with catastrophe, where the power of the earth is wielded as a weapon. And where there is no mercy.”
Why we love this blurb: There’s a reason MasterClass chose award-winning N.K. Jemisin to teach its course on writing science fiction and fantasy. She’s not just an author, she’s a student of the genre, and The Fifth Season’s blurb reflects that. The twists on traditional fantasy elements are subtle but powerful.
Take a look at that first line. If it simply read, “This is how the world ends,” it would be tempting to group The Fifth Season in with popular apocalyptic novels. But that last part–“for the last time”–changes everything.
It begs questions like “How can the world end again?” and “How did it end before?”
We see a theme of cycles in this blurb, of starts and ends, which are staples of the fantasy genre and perfect for a book titled after the seasons. We see conflict, not only in the plot but in the very nature of the world. In a land called “the Stillness,” great works and powerful characters are on the move.
Mistborn: The Final Empire
“The mists rule the night … the Lord Ruler owns the world.
“For a thousand years the ash fell. For a thousand years, the Skaa slaved in misery and lived in fear. For a thousand years, the Lord Ruler reigned with absolute power and ultimate terror, divinely invincible. Every attempted revolt has failed miserably.
Yet somehow hope survives. A new kind of uprising is being planned, one that depends on the cunning of a brilliant criminal mastermind and the courage of an unlikely heroine, a Skaa street urchin, who must learn to master Allomancy, the power of a mistborn.
What if the prophesied hero had failed to defeat the Dark Lord? The answer will be found in the Mistborn trilogy, a saga of surprises that begins here.”
Why we love this blurb: The Mistborn blurb evokes two iconic genre classics. The first is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where the characters of Narnia have been forced to endure a hundred years of winter under the tyranny of the White Witch.
The other reference is almost spelled out word for word. There’s “hope” from “a new kind of uprising.”
A New Hope, you might say.
The first book in the Mistborn trilogy follows the classic master-apprentice story between an orphaned teen and an exiled man of mystic forces, who team up to defeat the Final Empire. Just like Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Mistborn takes the sprawling aspects of Star Wars, the epic history of Narnia, and condenses it into something like an urban thriller. Danger lurks around every corner, hidden within the mist, and heroes swing from building to building like Spider-man.
With so many references to classic stories, this blurb reads almost like a series of cliches until you get to the last paragraph. “What if the prophesied hero had failed to defeat the Dark Lord?”
This, more than anything, hints at the true nature of Mistborn. The truth is almost always more difficult than it appears, for characters and readers alike.
Featured Photo: Us Wah / Unsplash