The Belles, by Dhonielle Clayton, has been getting quite a bit of buzz. This new release came out last week, and I received a ARC from Disney-Hyperion through NetGalley. This book gets mad props for talking about beauty and appearances in a way that I have never seen in a YA book! But also, before anything else is said, the LGBTQ+ rep in this book is not good, by which I mean this book has a case of Bury Your Gays, a relative of the Women in Refrigerators trope.
If you’re unfamiliar with the trope, it’s where bad stuff happens to marginalized characters (in this case, queer characters) in order to further the plot of the main (most of the time not marginalized) character. This is problematic and harmful because it basically tells readers who identify with marginalized characters that they have no place in the story and that their main value is in providing some sort of growth or lesson to other “real” characters through their suffering. In the interest of staying in my lane, if you want to know more about the trope and why it’s so terrible, Elise @thebookishactress has a post on the topic that I would encourage you to read, and it was specifically inspired by this book.
In short, if you know that violence towards LGBTQ+ people is going to be harmful to you, I’d recommend skipping this one. If this is a book you love and want to recommend, please be mindful and include a content warning.
Anyway, on to the review.
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.
The very best thing about The Belles is that it screams off the page for young readers everywhere that beauty is diverse. Camellia and her five Belle sisters, considered to be the ideals of beauty in their world, come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Each one is unique and different, and each one is upheld as equally beautiful. The rest of the people of Orléans, all striving to be as beautiful as possible, are also described as choosing all kinds of physical traits. I think that Tomi Adeyemi, author of the upcoming Children of Blood and Bone, put it best by saying,
“Additionally, I’ve never read such a diverse fantasy where all different types of beauty are celebrated and exist so seamlessly within the same room. This was the first book I ever got as a reader where picturing everybody in any scene allowed me to picture a diverse array of skin tones and body shapes and it was incredibly refreshing!”
At the same time that it upholds diverse beauty, The Belles shines a light on toxic beauty standards. Orléans is beauty culture taken to the extreme: appearance is an obsession and a competition in this world, and the people put themselves through excruciating treatments because they’re afraid that being themselves isn’t good enough.
And in this world of glorified external beauty, there are a lot of twisted people whose appearances are masking seriously lacking character.
It’s not just the people of Orléans who are beautiful. Dhonielle Clayton’s imagery is effortless, and from the moment the story began, I felt as wide-eyed and captivated by the world as Camille was seeing it all for the first time. Clayton does a fabulous job painting the magnificent opulence of the world of Orléans and the Belles. But for me, reading this book was like walking through a cloud of raspberry perfume. At first it was delicious, exciting, inviting–but after endless descriptions of dresses and jewels, marble and flowers, people eating pastries (so many pastries!) and macarons? I got overwhelmed, to the point where I barely processed the scenery anymore.
The world building of The Belles was what drew me in to request the book originally. Clayton works with a fascinating and incredibly unique premise, and learning the hows and whys of Orléans was great. I would have liked a lot more detail than what we got, though. By the end of the book, I still had a lot of questions about some of the basic tenets of the world, like what exactly happened to the Gris who didn’t get beauty treatments (it was made to sound very ominous, but all the characters in the book had a very blasé attitude about reverting to their natural state, aside from the *not being pretty* part?).
Also, where there are lavish palaces and merchant houses that bring in fortunes on luxuries like spices and jewels, there’s major economic disparity somewhere else. Clearly there are people somewhere in the world who go without, but how they factor in is very unclear. Couple that with talk of colonies and other islands and a War Ministry, all of which are footnotes in passing–are there other countries in this world? What relationship do they have to Orléans? I was pretty confused.
From the way the book ended, I think Clayton is going to address some of my many questions in the sequel, but I had a hard time getting comfortable in this book without really knowing what was going on.
To be taken with a grain of salt, I didn’t like Camellia. Plenty of other readers did. I thought she stayed willfully ignorant for a lot of the book. In the face of major, this changes the world as you knew it revelations about the entire purpose and culture of the Belles, she basically turned a blind eye and didn’t try to find out more until she absolutely had to. She also didn’t show a whole lot of integrity and was party to some really bad, cruel decisions without a lot personal consequences. And she kept expecting loyalty from people she really hadn’t done anything to inspire trust in, other than to be generally pleasant to them or maybe to bribe them? And then being flabbergasted if it seemed like they didn’t stand up for her, never mind that she rarely put herself at risk to stand up for anyone else.
The plot dragged for me. I honestly think The Belles should have been, like, 50 pages shorter. There’s just not enough happening here to justify the length of the book. The plot meandered a lot, too, because there were two big plot arcs that didn’t mesh very well: the secrets and conspiracies related to the Belles, and the problems facing the royalty. Only one of the two plot lines added very much urgency or tension to the book, and they were both hard to care about because Camellia was pretty indifferent to both sets of problems for a good portion of the book, tbh.
To be completely honest, I didn’t enjoy The Belles a whole lot. BUT I think this is very much a case of the book not being good for me and my personal tastes. I am solidly in the minority opinion on this one.
In this book, Clayton excels in creating a fun, whimsical, wildly different fantasy story, and there’s a lot here to love. If you loved Caraval for its decadent atmosphere, imaginative setting and premise, and subtle magic, I really think you might love The Belles, too, and you should definitely give it a try.
All in All…
- 3/5 sea stars
- Published February 6th, 2018, by Disney-Hyperion
- 448 pages
- For fans of Caraval, Ally Condie and Matched, French-themed settings, the politics-driven parts of The Hunger Games trilogy where people aren’t fighting to the death, Celaena trying on dresses in the Throne of Glass series.
I received this book free through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.