Book Review: The Belles
Published By: Freeform Books
Publication Date: February 6, 2018
Page Count: 448
Source: ARC Kindly Provided by Publisher
Young Adult - Fantasy
I fell for a pretty face as far as this novel was concerned. Prior to even knowing what it was about the cover had lured me in. I had experience with Dhonielle's writing from her novel, Tiny Pretty Things, that was co-written with Sona Charaipotra, as well as her short story in Meet Cute. Those two things convinced me this novel was a must read before I knew it was one of the most anticipated releases of 2018. This beauty showed up in December in a lovely gift box full of sweet treats and goodies, but I only had eyes for the novel. I could't wait to lose myself in this world.
The opening chapters helped me see what was so special about this novel. Not only is Clayton's writing gorgeous, but she has truly allowed her creativity to shine by creating a gorgeous, lush, and harsh universe complete with her own mythology. While there are familiar elements to the society, it is largely fabrication crafted and pieced together by Clayton's mind.
The main character, Camellia, is one of six Belles who is brought to the capital city in order to impress the royal family and find employment doing beauty work throughout the kingdom of Orleans. Camellia longs to be named the Queen's Favorite. It's been her goal since she was little and heard her mother's stories about the beautiful rooms and famous clients. For Camellia, her life is not her own, but its a carefully scheduled series of events. Belles, after all, are the purveyors of beauty in a society that without them would be drab and homely. The inhabitants of Orleans, not including the Belles, suffer from a strange malady that turns their skin the color of ash and their eyes a fiery crimson. Lore states that they have been cursed by the Gods and the Belles are the only ones who can make them beautiful. Camellia and her sisters have been trained to keep the gray at bay while keeping the nobles of Orleans looking their best.
The entire beauty theme was poignant and made me think of the current negative trends in modern society of body shaming, the incessant pressure to be beautiful, and bullying. All of these rear their ugly heads as Camellia navigates the dangerous corridors of the palace. It becomes apparent from the start that things are not as they should be and that Camellia is in for a rude awakening when she begins to piece together what is truly happening.
The process of beauty work was both fascinating and horrifying. I couldn't imagine putting myself through that much pain to change my looks on a fairly consistent basis. I'm an advocate of learning to be happy in your own skin and forsaking the comments of others that are designed to only bring you down. Clayton's commentary on body image in this novel is glaringly obvious if you're willing to push aside the trappings of fantasy to appraise the situation. I applaud her for not only filling the novel with a diverse cast of characters, but also tackling difficult topics that plague women in our society. There is no one definition of beauty.
In addition to the critical thinking this novel coerced me into and the brilliantly vibrant world building, I loved watching Camellia piece together the truth behind her existence. She is a character I would certainly want in my corner if things were going wrong. She is tenacious, fierce, loyal, and deeply conflicted when put in a situation that will cause harm. Camellia has no desire to play the role of willing puppet even though that is exactly what the Belles are trained to do. She pushes the envelope in a society that expects nothing more from her than the ability to change their skin tone and alter the color of their eyes to match their gown. She continues to pull at the loose thread of her existence until all the secrets that bind her society unravel at her feet. I didn't always agree with her choices, but by the end she becomes a symbol for justice.
There are some pretty difficult scenes to read in this one as the villians take great pleasure in humiliating and hurting people. Just seeing their names in print made me shiver. I won't give you anymore details, but I have tons more I could say.
There is also a swirl of romance which will appeal to many readers. I have to admit that I was not on board with the romance due to my shipping of another possible pairing. Again, I won't say more as I don't want to spoil anything, but I am interested to see if other readers have the same stance I do to the romance issue.
I also found it interesting to read this one as I was teaching students in my World History class about absolutism. There are so many segments from this novel that could be used as examples of absolutism and how it works. Many of the elements that plagued France during the reigns of absolute monarchs and led up to the French Revolution can be seen in the novel as well. I'm not sure if that was intentional on Clayton's part or derived purely from my own musings as fiction and history converged into a hypnotic dance in my mind. I'm sure these musings were fueled also by the apparent influence of New Orleans and Paris on elements throughout the novel.
All in all, I adored the time I spent with this novel. The symbolism is thought provoking and chillingly relevant while it still delivers a fantastical escape. The details and nuances of Orleans society were beautifully described in such a way that I felt like I was right by Camellia's side throughout her journey. If you're looking for a creative spin that adds a fresh layer to YA fantasy, I highly recommend giving The Belles a read. For me, this one felt like Marie Antoinette met up with the cast of Mean Girls in a setting that Effie Trinket would have adored. The next novel can't come soon enough to satisfy my desire to know what is in store for Camellia.
One Last Gripe: The beginning takes some patience. There is essential world building and character development happening, but it did make for a slower read. I was well and truly hooked though and the payoff in the end was worth any frustration I experienced in the first half of the novel.
Favorite Thing About the Book: I loved so many things, but if I can only choose one, I'll go with setting. Orleans is both gorgeous and cruel.
First Sentence: We all turned sixteen today, and for any normal girl that would mean raspberry and lemon macarons and tiny pastel blimps and pink champagne and card games.
Favorite Character: This is difficult as I loved several, but I'm going with Bree. Out of all the characters, I found her to be the most fiercely loyal - even when it could spell trouble for her.
Least Favorite Character: Again, I have several for this one as well, but I will keep it a secret to avoid spoilers, but you will be able to find them easily enough when you visit the intriguing world of Orleans.
Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.
But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.
With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.