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Where It Rains in Color by Denise Crittendon2.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsWhere It Rains in Color is the debut of Denise Crittendon, whose career has spanned academia, journalism, and motivational speaking, releasing her first novel at the age of 69. Just in case any of you were thinking you might be running out of time to realize your artistic dreams. This is a bold and highly original hybrid of science fiction and fantasy rooted in one very good idea: that beauty is political. A society’s beauty standards are shaped by those in power, and doors will open or close for you depending on how well you meet them. But these standards are confining and limiting, perhaps also dangerous, even for those who do.

It’s the far, far future, and we’re on the world of Swazembi, a planet colonized by the distant descendants of Africa’s Dogon people. It’s a planet where color itself is a tangible element, with blazing crimson deserts and lakes of vapor, whose inhabitants can live for up to 500 years. A lavish vacation utopia for tourists from all over the twenty-two worlds of the Coalition, where citizens travel to and fro on gusts of wind.

Lileala has just beaten seventeen other candidates for the role of Rare Indigo, a woman of exceptional beauty with the power to make the melanin in her skin shimmer with light, creating a powerful hypnotic effect. As the Rare Indigo, she will serve as a dignitary and celebrity representative of her people. But despite the stature and importance of her role, Lileala — at fifty years old, still very young and immature for a Swazembi native — is impulsive, rebellious, frequently breaking the rules and straining at the leash of her duties.

To be the Rare Indigo, you see, is no easy task. Lileala is not allowed to travel off-world, for instance. And the previous Rare Indigo, Ahonotay, abdicated her position to flee to a remote village, where she’s been living under a vow of silence for reasons no one understands for over forty years. As Lileala chafes under her restrictions while the day of her formal ceremony approaches, she begins to hear voices. And just before the ceremony, she breaks out in a horrific and inexplicable skin condition, that stops her ability to shimmer and leaves enormous lesions called keloids all over her face.

Enter the Kclab, a species from a neighboring world who have been excluded from the Coalition. They have developed a serum called Mecca that can cure this skin condition (which is in fact spreading among many worlds). But they’ll only offer it for a price. The story then follows Lileala on a spiritual journey as she not only pursues her own healing, but learns more about her people’s link to their almost-mythic Dogon ancestors, and gains knowledge that will impact the future of the Coalition itself.

Crittendon has ambition to burn. She is very keen on the notion of beauty and its role in who does and does not hold power, shown in the contrast between the Rare Indigo and the Swazembi people — where melanin is held as the highest possible beauty standard — and the Kclab, a backwater society whose people have outsized skulls and translucent skin, making them “hideous” in the eyes of other Coalition worlds. But Crittendon’s storytelling chops as a first-time novelist aren’t always up to the task of setting her ideas into a smoothly flowing narrative. Pacing is inconsistent, and too many characters lack the necessary depth for strong reader connection. Personal interactions and dialogue sometimes feel stilted. Lileala does have a character arc that takes her from childishness to greater maturity and empowerment, but few supporting characters register very deeply. Trieca, a Kclab scientist and spy, is probably the only exception, but even she’s a bit one-note. She’s a cold manipulator among her own people, who comes to the bitter understanding that she’ll always be considered repellent and inferior to all others.

As a science fiction reader, I came to this book understanding I was getting a space fantasy. But there were still some things I felt could have benefited from greater attention. There isn’t really much world building going on here. There’s just lots of gorgeous scenery. Crittendon seems to have envisioned her Coalition strictly by adhering to the unfortunate trope of Single-Purpose Planets. Little thought has been given to political systems and how they’re structured. When the Coalition meets, it just feels like a bunch of men in a room yelling. (Not to say that doesn't resemble a lot of real-world situations, but for a novel, I need things a bit more fleshed out.)

And I kept wanting to know more details, like how space travel is done here. We’re told archaeologists and researchers go back to Earth frequently, and one of the story’s few humorous touches is the way ancient pop songs are regarded as sacred hymns by the Swazembi. But you know, Earth must be really far away, so what kind of ships are going there? Under whose authority? And what technology did the Kclab employ to capture an asteroid? These might seem like nitpicky details. But even for the most fantastical of futures, they do count towards believability and immersion.

Mostly, Where It Rains in Color gets by on vibes and some good themes about agency in the face of cultural standards and the demands they put on us. It’s a book that some readers will find easier to connect to than others. But it signals the emergence of a deeply committed talent who has undeniable potential to, one day, bring us stories that really will shimmer.