My boss caught me sneaking in a chapter of Cori McCarthy’s The Color of Rain when I was supposed to be, you know, LIBRARIANING, and was understandably curious about what had me so riveted. I took a deep breath, prepared to launch into a detailed description of the book, realized that she would probably appreciate brevity (you know, considering the whole reading-on-the-job thing), and ended up just blurting out, “SPACE PROSTITUTE.”

To which she said, “YA?”

And when I nodded, looking vaguely shell-shocked, she just backed away slowly. A response that I took as tacit permission to keep reading. Which I did.

When 17-year-old Rain White agrees to be a dangerously handsome space trader’s “girl” in exchange for passage across the universe, she’s at the end of her rope: Her younger brother Walker, the only other surviving member of her family, needs medical help that can’t be found on Earth City. But once she’s aboard the Imreas and their journey is underway, she discovers that Johnny is far more dangerous than he is handsome, and that she’s only one of many “girls.” Her red ID bracelet currently marks her as Johnny’s, and Johnny’s alone, but if it switches to green or blue or yellow, she’ll be living—and working—in very different conditions.

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It turns out that the stakes are much higher than Rain could have ever imagined: It isn’t just her life, her brother’s life or the lives of the other girls that are in danger...there are a thousand helpless captives on the Imreas, and if Rain doesn’t fight for them, no one else will.

PHEW. The Color of Rain isn’t perfect, but it’s one hell of a read.

While I love space operas that depict the future as harsh and grimy and unfair*, it isn’t a book I’d recommend purely for its worldbuilding: The characters’ use of contemporary slang is especially distracting, and prevents a full immersion into the world. On the bright side, the occasional groan-worthy lines (Rain, on where she learned how to fight: My training was living on the street.) are balanced out by some really super ones (“You new girls,” she says. “You always have your heads up hope’s ass.”). And the pacing is absolutely excellent—within the first few pages, McCarthy creates an atmosphere of tense urgency, and she doesn’t let up until the book ends.

Her depiction of prostitution is more Deadwood than Firefly: These aren’t courtesan types who have a higher calling to provide comfort and pleasure, these are girls who’ve chosen (or who have been tricked into) a dangerous, decidedly precarious method of survival. They are considered property—there’s a lot in The Color of Rain about the different forms slavery can take—and they are treated as such: they are abused, they are broken, they are thoughtlessly thrown away. This isn’t a story in which a girl goes into the sex trade and somehow, miraculously, never actually has to Do The Deed: Rain has sex, and she has it a lot, albeit always off-screen.

Johnny isn’t just fickle and easily angered, he’s also manipulative and cruel, emotionally and physically—but, as is often the case in abusive relationships, Rain both hates him and desires his approval, and McCarthy is frank about that conflict without romanticizing it. There are aspects of Rain’s character that are bound to trouble some readers, and she very definitely makes some choices that those same readers will find equally troubling. Other readers—myself included—will root for her throughout, and find her especially appealing since, unlike the stereotypical Fiery Redhead, she’s capable of playing the long game: First and foremost, she’s a survivor, and as we all learned from Katniss Everdeen, survivors are not always all that easy to like.

Likable or not, though, it’s hard not to appreciate a heroine who vows: I will not react. I will act.


*What can I say? I’m a pessimist.

If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.