Book Review: Colorless by Rita Stradling, Messed Up But Beautifully Told

I’m behind in posting reviews because, among other things, I’ve been helping my oldest through a grueling couple of weeks of playing catch-up at school. He was failing all of his 9th grade classes until a couple of weeks ago except for two, but is now only failing two, having brought the rest of them up to A’s and B’s by grinding out homework, staying every day after school to retake tests and fix assignments. We have a meeting on Monday with his principal, counselor, academic coach, etc., to discuss a different plan for his second semester. As happy as I am that he’s been able to rally, and hasn’t had any more migraines recently, I’d really like to help him figure out how to avoid his pattern of getting buried under missing assignments and then rallying just before the term ends. Of course, I’ve also been working, Christmas shopping, querying, going to critique meetings, finding a new home for my writers’ club, helping friends, etc. You’d think I wouldn’t have had time to read, but since it’s my reprieve, I have. In fact, I recently read Colorless by Rita Stradling, a book that reminded me of Stranger Things, a Netflix sci-fi/horror show in its highly intriguing portrayal of people trapped in strange circumstances they couldn’t figure out, no matter what they did. Colorless’ premise is awesome and unique, but the execution of that premise, while very enjoyable in some ways, was quite faulty in others.

What Colorless is About

Colorless is more or less a historical fantasy set in the fictional town of Domengrad, an analog of an early 20th century Russian town. The people of this town have three rules that they live by: fear the gods, worship the magicians, and forsake the iconoclasts. These rules were laid down by some “off-screen” magicians, and are enforced by a group of mute, hive-minded monks. Annabelle Klein, the main character, is heiress to a manor in that town, but the manor’s mortgaged down to its candlesticks, she’s betrothed to her loathsome cousin, and her parents suddenly and simultaneously die at the beginning of the book, and when that happens, all of the pigment drips out of her skin and hair, leaving her colorless. Within moments, Annabelle is invisible and forgotten by all who knew her.  Things are pretty bad for her.

What Wasn’t Great About Colorless

Given that, you would think that her first thoughts would either be to grieve, use her invisibility to solve the mystery of what she suspects is her parents’ murder, and/or try to find out why she turned colorless and invisible. But she doesn’t really do any of those things.  Instead, she just strives to escape the notice of the monks who come to the manor to investigate the possible existence of an iconoclast (someone who attacks cherished beliefs or institutions or a destroyer of images used in religious worship), though they can’t see or remember Annabelle either. As she does so, she meets Dylan, a stableboy on the estate to whose point of view the story then transfers, and thinks about Tony, her “loathsome” cousin, to whom the point of view then also transfers. All this eventually leads in a roundabout way to her meeting some young men who help to shed light on why her parents died and provide speculation about the monks’ or magicians’ connection between that and her invisibility. But they don’t help her solve the mystery or regain her color and visibility. And they even turn out to be connected to the monks in a Jacob-esque way that really makes no sense.

So, plotwise, it wasn’t the best. It would have been a much more powerful story better told if it had only been told from Annabelle’s perspective, and had focused on any one of her possible motives of  solving her parents murder or becoming visible and colored once again. It was confusing. I was frustrated with the lack of substantive information supplied during each chapter to help answer questions brought up in earlier chapters. It seemed like clues were constantly being given about the true nature of the enemy, and none were answered. The reader is constantly held in the dark about the motives behind characters’ actions, and there are a couple of plot twists that made no sense to me whatsoever. And there was a fair amount of swearing, which I thought was totally superfluous, and in fact, took away from the feel of the book. And, by way of “nutrition facts,” there is mention of a hoped-for gay relationship.

What Was Great About Colorless

That being said, I still found myself totally intrigued and drawn in. I would venture to say that, while I wouldn’t give this book any points for plot, and in fact, might even take away points for that (it’s my ten-star system, so I can do what I want with it, right?), I would give it all the points possible for setting and style, and maybe even extra ones. Stradling very deftly tells Annabelle’s tale such that the reader can easily “see” and “feel” where she’s at, even if they can’t understand why or how.

So, I’d probably award Colorless six out of ten stars.

I’m reading Gemina by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, the sequel to the wowser YA sci-fi space opera horror Illuminae, as well as Penric’s Shaman, sequel to Penric’s Demon, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. Watch for a review of Gemina coming up soon!

Disclaimer: I did receive a free copy of the book through NetGalley, but my opinions are the same as if I would have paid for the book.