I’m thrilled to be starting off my blogging year with a cracking review for my most anticipated read of 2018, The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton. And because I am a turd that bites off more than she can chew, this baby has languished on the TBR for far too long! Beautifully written, intensely imaginative, and chalk full of action I adored every moment I spent transported to the world of Orleans and simply can’t wait for the sequel!
Title: The Belles
Author: Dhonielle Clayton
Publication Date: February 6, 2018
Genre: Fiction, YA, Fantasy, Mystery
Themes: Survival, Magic, Murder, Adventure, Romance
My Rating: 4.5/ 5
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.
Okay, let’s get the bad bits out of the way first. This was an absolutely incredible story with tons of action, intrigues, and a hella twisty plot, but for some reason I felt that the romantic threads came across as completely forced. I get it, when you have a character that has been told her entire life that she can never love, that when she’s presented with charming men that swoon all over her, she’s going to want the things she can’t have. But Camellia’s chemistry with both her suave young sailor and her stoic guard simply wasn’t there.
Yet, despite my belief that The Belles would have been better without the romantic interest, it was still an absolutely amazing read. The idea of a world without colour and only a select few being able to bring beauty into it was rather intriguing. What a great way o challenge societal norms, beauty practices, and the ways in which we see ourselves and others. If this makes even one person think about the painful sacrifices we make, both physically and emotionally, in the name of beauty and unattainable ideals it’s totally worth it.
I think one of the most painful passage to read had to be Camellia’s first client in the tea house, a young girl whose mother sought to alter every natural aspect of her daughter’s features, despite her obvious pain. Even though the world of Orleans is sumptuous, vibrant, and highly superficial Clayton spreads some serious messages about self love – and I am a firm believer that we can never get enough of that!
But that princess though… what a steaming piece of nasty! Kudos to Camellia, and all those who came before her, for trying to alter her demeanour even if it never worked. Her unpredictable moods, outrageous demands, and the practice of treating her courtiers like playing pieces made her a perfectly hateable villain. The result was that the tension in the palace was incredibly intense, and more than once I found myself having to stretch out my neck and shoulders because the drama had me on tenterhooks.
I absolutely adored the uniqueness of Orleans magic and the amount of time that was dedicated to detailed world building. My favourite elements by far were the ballon systems for everything from mail to spying to news, and the sumptuousness of the fashion described. While the land, people and history of Orleans were carefully crafted and presented as a complete picture, it was done in such as way as to never feel cumbersome. Admittedly, there were a few elements that I would have liked to see more flushed out – such as the unofficial Belles and why the Belle population has been steadily dropping – but I can’t hold it against the author for keeping a few goodies for the other books in the series.
I should say though, while The Belles is magical and enthralling, it is not for the very young nor the faint of heart. There are many moments that could easily be considered triggering – such as an attempted sexual assault, a moment where a trans character has to battle with their self-identification in contrast to societal expectation, and some pretty horrific scenes which depict intense bullying, mental manipulation, and flat out torture. They will undoubtedly make many uncomfortable, and may even make some angry, but I appreciated the way in which these behaviours were always questioned and never condoned. Clayton forces introspection on some pretty serious issues, and I for one, and happy that she never shies away from the important stuff as it made The Belles that much better.
Edgy, imaginative, and packed full of paradox The Belles is a smashing start in what is sure to be an epic series. I can’t wait to see where Camellia and her gang go next, and am seriously thirsting for the sequel to be out, like, yesterday….
If you ever crave a touch of magic and adventure in your reads, I can’t recommend The Belles highly enough!