Author: Dhonielle Clayton
Genre: YA Fantasy
*Thank you to the publishers, author and NetGalley for sending me an advance copy of the book*
‘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.’
– The Belles
I truly don’t know where to start when it comes to The Belles. I suppose I should give a little insight into the backstory and concept on which it is based. The Belles revolves around one central question: if we could control beauty, what would the consequences be? (I’m not sure I would have understood this intention if the author hadn’t written a note at the end of the book explaining that she wanted the book to be a hard look at beauty standards). Looking back on it, this idea is introduced quite well at the beginning, with it being drilled into us that beauty being very much a commodity that only the rich can afford, and those who control it are coveted above the rest. However, the intention soon gets lost within the story. What could have been a hard-hitting look at reality quickly dissolves into frustration at the characters, serious pacing issues, and incredibly repetitive descriptions.
Where do I begin? I have so many issues with this book it’s hard for me to pinpoint which one came first, so I’ll start with the most glaringly obvious: this book has serious pacing issues. For the first 75% of the book, I felt myself having to be dragged through the chapters. Story-wise, nothing happened. It was all just flowery descriptions of the glitz and glamour of Orléans and not much else. Then, in the final 25%, suddenly everything happens. The book could have been so much shorter and a hell of a lot more enjoyable if all of the ridiculous filler was cut out.
On the subject of flowery descriptions and ridiculous filler, Clayton’s writing style just doesn’t appeal to me. She has a habit of comparing everything to food (hair colour, skin colour, scents). This sounds like an old man grumbling at the world, but when you get to your third paragraph about how someone’s skin is like ‘fresh cream’ or ‘honey’ or ‘chocolate’, this lazy writing style becomes incredibly mundane. I got lost in huge paragraphs detailing the colour of every lady-of-honour’s attributes, as well as what was being served on every single food cart that was ever seen in the whole of Orléans. Further, in an attempt to sound more, what? majestic? the author decided to stick the word petit (French for little) on the front of every food: petit-cakes, petit-waffles, petit-pancakes. But oh no, she doesn’t just stop with foods: there’s also petit-crowns, petit-paintings, petit-hourglasses. And when things weren’t lumbered with the ‘petit’ prefix, they had ‘Belle’ tacked to the front (Belle-buns, Belle-rose, Belle-apartments, Belle-dolls). The whole thing just felt ridiculous and completely lost me.
Aside from ‘Belle’ and ‘petit’, Clayton uses a lot of French in the book in order to make things sound more glamorous. The Belles come from Maison Rouge de la Beauté (Red House of Beauty), the princesses are princess du sang (princess of/by blood), and leeches are called by their French name, sangsue (this is on and off. Sometimes they’re called leeches, sometimes sangsue – there is very little continuity in this book). If the author can’t glamorise words using French, she has the habit of renaming things. Measuring tapes become taperibbons, microphones turn into voice trumpets, and lipstick (even when it isn’t red) becomes rouge-stick. I am not at all averse to creativity in a book, but renaming everyday objects is unnecessary and leaves a lot of guesswork for the reader, especially when they might not have enough of a grasp on French to know what a word is referring to. In my opinion, this made the book become confusing and messy. (Don’t even get me started on how many different types of lantern there are.)
I have real issues with the characters in the Belles. Throughout the whole book, I didn’t see and ounce of character development, except in the bad character who gradually became more and more manipulative. That was one of the best things about the book: I really wasn’t expecting the villain to turn out to be bad. That surprise really, well, surprised me, because everything else in the book was so opaque: there was little subtlety in The Belles.
I didn’t like most of the other characters. Camille was an incredibly weak, stupid person. She couldn’t see when she was being manipulated, what the consequences of her actions would be, or when to say no. She was so mousey in character and not at all the strong woman I desired her to be. (I know she was supposed to be a little naïve, but I would have liked to have seen her become less so as the story progressed and she became wise to the ways of the world.) In fact, I liked none of the Belles (except perhaps Edel), as they were all so egotistical, with their heads so far up their backside they viewed life from just behind their tonsils. It was so frustrating seeing Camille act the way she did: endangering people because she was so desperate to prove she was the best.
I think I’m going to skip over the badly written romance, as this has become a theme of most of my YA reviews of late. If you’re going to include a romantic subplot, please make it realistic and don’t have them declaring their love for each other after, what? 5 meetings?
I did, however, like the diversity in this book. Clayton includes people from most ethnic backgrounds, and there are a good number of gay and bisexual characters. She also includes people of different frames and allows readers to see their beauty: from thin, willowy frames, to curvaceous girls, and those with wider waists, every body shape is included in the world of Orléans.
Although there is good diversity in The Belles, I did find a few things to be problematic. These relate to events in the book, so don’t read this paragraph if you don’t want to be spoiled. Firstly, Clayton uses the word ‘dandy’ to portray the fashion minister’s workers. In the UK, the word dandy has historically been used as a derogatory term for a gay man, so I found the use of this to be a big problem for me. Also, Valerie, the Belle described as being larger and darker than the others, was sent to the worst position and never really heard from again. There was also an undisclosed sexual assault that should have had a trigger warning, as it was quite distressing. Finally, as in most media, the gay girl dies. I don’t know why I am surprised by this anymore.
Clayton was given a palette by which she could really make people think, but instead of delivering a hard look at society, the message gets wound up in silly descriptions, unconvincing romance, and badly developed characters. I can’t help feeling like the intention to do good with this book was really there, but it just didn’t deliver that for me.