Updated: Jan 8
It's been a long time since I've been able to do a long-form book post, and boy have I missed it. It's not that there haven't been any worthy books - if anything, there have been too many to ever cover, even if I was more on the ball. Centipede Press just did their first leather-bound deluxe edition in probably five years (The Haunting of Hill House), Suntup has recently dropped the excellently received Blood Meridian (though with the lettered getting much less love than I think it deserves), and Sub Press continues to up its lettered game (including the upcoming finale of The Books of Babel). It's a bountiful time to be a collector! And plenty in the pipeline, too: Arete Editions' Death & Honey, and the Lyra's and Amaranthine Dorian - both of whom sold out their lettered editions with little problem. And, of course, the soon-to-be-available-for-pre-order re-release of The First Law trilogy from Curious King. And indeed, it is Curious King that brings us all together right now, as we have recently been treated with the first publicly-released Curious King tome: Ready Player One. This first offering is an absolute gem, folks. I know that nobody doubts that! But this is one of those books where it's a shame that only 26 exist because a much higher fraction of the book collecting world deserves to see this one up close. But based on Ready Player One, I have a feeling that the upcoming Abercrombie and Jemisin trilogies (and the as-yet unannounced sci-fi series that I desperately hope is the Hyperion Cantos but will be something excellent I'm sure) are going to make some waves as well, and let a whole lot more people enjoy a numbered and standard version, to boot. Some quick background: this is the first official offering from Curious King, a new UK-based small press helmed by Anthony Kaye. Unusually, Ready Player One was not formatted or printed by Curious King, but rather is a rebound first edition. I would consider this a similar approach to presses that start with out-of-copyright works: a shortcut through the maze of rights and the associated costs. And it's an approach that provides big gains to the collecting community! Projects like this enable creative publishers to show us their most ambitious ideas, unconstrained by the whim of an author's agent. or estate (not that those whims can't be valid and reasonable, of course, just that they are a barrier between some great publishing ideas and a very receptive audience. The key here (says me, who has never published a book in his life) is using that as a stepping stone to a more diverse range of material. Rebinds don't let you have any say about the paper or interior designs. Out-of-copyright works are OLD because of our copyright system, and many of the great works already have multiple newer editions. To reinforce my metaphor and make me seem right at the same time: Curious King has pretty much leapt over that stepping stone and is pursuing quite an ambitious agenda! Before Ready Player One even shipped, CK was able to secure rights to Joe Abercrombie's much-loved The First Law trilogy and the award-smashing Broken Earth trilogy from NK Jemisin (First author to win three Hugos in a row! First series to win for all novels in a trilogy!). But back to talking about the context of the book (after which we will probably get around to talking about the book itself): As a rebound book, there are some inherent limitations here, namely all interior design choices, and the paper. These are both important parts of a limited edition! But here, we are lucky - while it would definitely be nice to have a completely upgraded interior, the binding and presentation of the book are a wonderful combination of clever and elegant and give us more than enough to enjoy before we even open the book. And when we do, there are indeed some fresh updates! One more note, before we start looking more closely at the book: as many or most are aware, these books were bound at Ludlow's, home of Rich Tong (and now Freya Scott, one of my very favorite marblers). Rich is of course the proprietor of Lyra's Books, but is also part of the crew at Arete (I bet you can guess which part), and works closely with several other presses as well. And, if you're lucky enough to find one, as they are getting scarcer and scarcer, he has done a number of wonderful rebinds over the last couple of years, including a small series of The Exorcist (which are amazing), and a number of Tolkein books. I can (and will) write plenty separately about Rich's work under his own imprint, but I wanted to make sure to mention his involvement here as it was an early sign that Curious King was not messing around! Alright, well - we're several hundred words in and haven't even yet started talking about The Book Itself, so thanks to everyone who has stuck around. But unlike Centipede or Sub Press or Suntup, Curious King is a brand new press whose first offering made it to less than 30 people, so I think some setup was in order. But now, let's dig into the book! As always, we'll start on the outside and work our way in. The Traycase I love an exotic traycase - sparingly. My shelves, not so much at all, but I do really appreciate when the design of the book takes such a clear influence over the traycase that it necessitates something other than covered book board (not knocking covered book board - there's a whole beautiful world of covered book board and it's what I prefer for 95% of my books). For books at this price point, we should expect things like matching or complementary materials and colors - that's the bar for these deluxe editions (this is a theme we'll come back to). And above that we have upgraded materials - more extensive leather and so-on - or more artistic design. But on a whole different level, we have those enclosures that are significant extensions of the interior design (other good examples here are the typewriter case for the Suntup lettered Misery or the chess set from the Amaranthine Bandersnatch edition of Alice in Wonderland). And this case, my friends, is indeed on an entirely different plane. At this point, if you've heard of Curious King it's very likely you heard about it in the context of this book, and if you heard about it in the context of this book you've probably heard about this case. It's a defining element of this release. Now, the all-important question: is it worth the shelf space? Yes! YES! This will cost you half a dozen books to display on your shelf (among other things), but I promise you won't miss those six books because you'll get to look at this one everyday. The outside looks perfect. There are some screws and hardware in the back of the console in order to get it to open, but they are well-positioned and match the rest of the case seamlessly. And the interior is so nice and soft! There is a well for the book with a ribbon to help remove it. The space is used very efficiently - the book fits in nicely and is well-protected, but the lid can still close completely to show off the console, which looks pretty much ready to be plugged in.
There are two styles of case, also: an all-black "Vader" case from a limited edition console as well as the more standard Atari console with it's unironically stupendous wood grain:
The Binding As much of a treat as the traycase is, the book inside is still surprisingly good! I don't mean that I didn't expect it to be good - I definitely had a high bar. But seeing the outside, the enclosure, it would be easy to think "this is where all the energy went, this is the most clever thing." And while it is such an iconic case, the design of the book itself is really something to behold. Again, at this price point the expectations are pretty high as far as materials go, and it does not disappoint in that regard with the use of very nice goatskin (Hewit or Harmatan, probably) for the boards. These leathers are just wonderful! Soft (but not quite as soft as calfskin, making them arguably a better material for stamping and tooling (caveat: not a bookmaker)), and with an excellent grain - even in both texture and tone, but still displaying the beautiful variation that we expect to see from a natural material. And here I don't mean "sometimes it has scars and you should be OK with that" (which is a debatable proposition) - what I mean is that the grain is very clearly not a stamped or mass produced pattern but has a pleasing regularity to it. But again - a leather like this? That's our baseline at this price point: it's not extraordinary, in and of itself, to use nice leather, what makes it extraordinary is what you do with it. And here we have just a beautifully designed and immaculately tooled foil scene - actually one of the climaxes of the book itself - of a Pac-man game. The foil-work here is very strong - clean and crisp and striking. The added element of the colored keys in the middle give a little pop of variety to the palette versus the primary blue, yellow, and white of the game.
There is a pretty good-sized list of "things I'm a sucker for in small press books": hand-marbled paper (the one single thing I that this book doesn't have that I wish could have been included somehow), exotic traycases, anything Bradel, decorated page edges, and the punchline here: binding designs that wrap around the spine and boards. I love when a designer uses the whole binding as a canvas. This is not a very common feature! I'm not counting wraparound dustjackets, which are uncommon but still regularly used, but designs on the boards and spine themselves. In this case we have the delicate and realistic scene on the front, but with a side passage around the spine and leading to a literal easter egg on the back - a great nod to the book itself!
Overall, this was an excellent idea, well executed. The fonts! The colors! The fact that Pac-Man has already started his journey...!
The Page Edges Gilt! All three sides! What's especially interesting here is the style of gilding - it's of a matte gold, but with some sparkle, instead of a shiny gold. It fits the boards nicely, for sure; it's a little more subdued and it plays well with the vibrant colors of the foil. A more typical gold gilt might not mesh as well here, I don't think, though I'm not sure I would have realized that without seeing this style. Great move!
The Bands Let me theorize something about head- and tail-bands: I feel like this is the thing that tells me if the designer was really paying attention. I'm sure most people know the tale(s) about Van Halen and the brown M&Ms - first as the "how ridiculous are these rock stars" expose and later as the "this was actually smart" realization (if not, long story short: Van Halen toured with a lot of complicated equipment that could be dangerous if not set up correctly. In their contracts with venues and promoters they would specify how to set everything up correctly, and also that they wanted M&M's (but no brown ones) backstage. If they got backstage and saw brown M&Ms, that was a good indication that the contract was not thoroughly read and they would recheck all the equipment before the show.). Well, head- and tail-bands are my book equivalent to brown M&Ms: if the press (concert promoter) is paying attention to the headbands (brown M&Ms), they are definitely paying attention to the rest of the book (the stage equipment). (That tortured metaphor was totaly worth it!) And these bands, they pass the test. They are matched to two of the predominant colors on the boards: blue and yellow. And actual matching shades of blue and yellow. Wonderful!
Art Before we go inside the book, I want to take a minute here to talk about the art, including the Portfolio. A caveat here: art portfolios are not entirely my bag. Interior art in general is something I very much appreciate and would always prefer to have rather than not, but it's not super high up on my list of things I'm looking for in a limited edition. For a book like this, things like the binding and presentation are what I focus on. BUT I recognize that there are lots of different collectors and there is no wrong way to enjoy a collectible book, and it turns out that a lot of other limited edition collectors prioritize new art, in some cases above all else. I will say to those collectors: CK has your back! This is, I think, about the best delivery of new art that one could hope for in a rebound book: newly commissioned endpapers, new interior concept art (RP1 as an Atari cartridge), a remarque (in some volumes), and a whole damn portfolio. And not just an artist that the publisher likes (which is a fine way to choose an artist) or who has good interpretations of the work (another fine way, hopefully related to the first!), but several artists, each of whom played a part in creating the very world that Ready Player One simulates. And, lucky for me, this art portfolio is included in a separate, specially bound folder, so I get to talk about another binding, too :) We have roughly six new pieces of art here. The first three come in the separate art portfolio. The Art Portfolio binding I was very glad to see that the Art Portfolio book was given some good consideration on its own, and wasn't just an afterthought. We have a black leather spine (in what looks like the same goatskin as the book itself) over some nicely textured boards. These boards have a stoney feel - a really cool texture to achieve with what I'm pretty sure is paper. It's a great contrast to the smoothness of the leather. And we have another design element I like - a stamped label on the front board with the same font, white pellets, and little running man from the boards of the main book. I really appreciate continuity like this throughout a production - it really ties it together as a singular piece of art.
Inside the folio are three prints: "Tempest", "Black Tiger", and "Adventure".
I love the strong colors on "Adventure", but "Black Tiger" is my favorite - fantasy-style concept art that would have been included on an early video game package or manual.
The Interior When we open the book we are treated with the fourth piece of original art: new endpapers! I'm very happy for the Art Enjoyers that this was another new piece of art for the book. And how that's especially important for a rebind.
A little further in we have another piece of art - concept art for Ready Player One as an Atari game. This felt so natural for this book that I had to look up whether or not this was a new addition! It's perfect.
Next, we have the limitation page, with the final piece of art (in some but not all copies) - a remarque. I'm not sure how many different pictures there are - at least two. They are very elegantly done and DAMN I love Hiro Kimura's signature in ink. Gorgeous!
Finally, we have the author's "signature page" (in most but not all copies). I'm not sure how these are distributed between title page and front free endpaper and other potential locations. Not a bad sig! He's no Tolkein but he's no Malerman, ethier.
The interior here was extremely successful at approximating the interior of a limited edition (if we ignore paper quality). It has enough perks and additions that it feels much more elevated compared to a trade edition. And all these parts contributed pretty equally - endpapers, concept art, limitation page, author's signature page. Very thoughtful. Final Thoughts Overall, this was an extraordinary debut! There are tons of things to say about this book, and I feel like I said a LOT of them. If I had to distill this all down - to pick three words that get my point across the best: ambitious, cohesive, elevated. This was a great goal, successfully achieved! And we are - as a community and as individual book owners - better off for it. I am so excited for the future of Curious King, especially the introduction of the numbered and standard lines. All signs suggest that this is going to be a great new press, and it's energizing as a collector to be able to share in that collective enjoyment. Until next time! -Tim