Dhonielle Clayton’s debut novel The Belles has been hyped far and wide for what feels like ages. With its glitzy cover and royal fantasy world, readers have garnered some high hopes. Well, keep ‘em up, because this book is something to savor!
Camellia Beauregard is a Belle, one of the precious few who can gift others beauty in a cursed nation where citizens naturally have a zombie-like appearance. Beauty is more than just a hobby to the people of Orléans, particularly in the wealthy capital city. It’s an obsession. Everyone wants to be the new trend and get the most attention, and The Belles are the people who give them that special look. Camellia is certain that she’ll be named the Favorite of the new generation of Belles entering the capital, thus serving the needs of the royal family directly as one of the most important people in the kingdom. But she’ll soon learn that beauty, especially when mixed with politics, comes with a steep price.
The Belles has the type of world building that requires words usually use to describe something edible– rich, textured, and delectable. It’s a feast for the eyes. There’s something new and vibrant happening around every corner and the society has unique standards and practices at play. Of course, this requires some set-up time, which the book has no problem taking. The plot doesn’t really start kicking in until a little less than 100 pages in, but there’s so much to absorb leading up to it that I barely noticed.
The novel is set in a world crafted by vanity, but it’s not a celebration of vanity nor is it a condemnation of beauty standards. Thematically, the story focuses on power and obsession, using appearance as the apparatus upon which the societal structure is built. In a title that could have gone the flowery route, the themes lead to fierce introspection instead. That’s not to say the story doesn’t have a dramatic flair. It has plenty of that. It just doesn’t depend solely on character drama. If you liked the royal court razzle-dazzle of The Selection but didn’t love that the novels revolved largely around women hating on each other while trying to win over a man, this is for you.
Speaking of characters, they’ll also be a pleasant surprise to many readers. At first, Camellia and her friends come off as, well… a bit shallow. After all, their whole lives have been centered around how special their powers to create beauty are and how important appearance is. I didn’t feel any immediate connection with or sympathy for them during the early chapters as they clamored to be named Favorite, but as the plot develops, so do the characters. Like most people, you never know who they truly are until you see them tested. That’s not to say I always agreed with them. They can be petty and generally eyeroll-worthy in their own right, but realistically so considering they’re largely teens from a certain level of privilege. There’s only one time I had a true issue with them: A particularly hard-to-swallow scene involving Camellia and one of her sisters toward the end that certainly left me uneasy. This may be, in part, because the story doesn’t leave room to unpack the incident after it happens, so I look forward to it being explored more in book two.
The story’s villain is really good in her role. There’s no “love-to-hate” happening here. It’s all just plain hate. Her obvious villainy may take some dimension away from the story, but it also adds tension– whenever she’s around, you know you’re in for trouble. Add in some dark twists and the plot quickly comes to a boil.
If you’re a romantic at heart, there are certainly some moments that will make you sigh (and possibly also make you cry.) However, The Belles is Camellia’s journey and she’s not particularly co-dependent on any character, let alone her love interest. Still, you can’t fault the bold, swoony boys or the more quiet, steadfast ones she meets along the way! If you love all types of love, Camellia’s story is also a bit of an exploration of friendship and sisterhood that we expect to see more of as the series progresses.
The Belles is more savvy and complex than an early impression or summary suggests. If you’re looking for a fresh voice to read and an eye-popping political fantasy to enjoy, start right here!
RATING: 4.25 OUT OF 5 STARS
The Belles hits bookshelves on February 6, 2018. You can preorder it now via Amazon!
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.