Series: The Belles #1
Published by Disney-Hyperion on February 6, 2018
Genres: Fantasy, Young Adult Fiction
Dhonielle Clayton’s gorgeous novel The Belles immersed me in one of the most unique fantasy worlds I’ve encountered in a long time. I was captivated from the novel’s early pages as we are introduced to the legend of a curse that hangs over the heads of the people of Orleans. The land of Orleans itself is exquisite, but its residents live under a terrible curse that causes them all to be born gray with red eyes. Because of their cursed appearance, they think of themselves as anything but beautiful and, in fact, become downright obsessed with doing whatever they can to improve their appearance.
The curse is where the Belles come into play. The Belles control beauty and have the ability, through magical gifts called arcana, to transform the gray-skinned, red-eyed citizens of Orleans into the most beautiful people in the world. They can change skin tones, hair color and texture, eye color, and can even use their magic to sculpt bodies as though they were plastic surgeons. Beauty is therefore a big deal in Orleans and the Belles are cherished by the citizens because of what they can do for them. Whatever look they wish to have, the Belles can make it happen for them. Well, for those who can afford it anyway. Beauty is quite literally a big business in Orleans and appointments with the Belles do not come cheap.
This life of making others beautiful is all the Belles know. It’s what they were born to do and as we see with Camellia, the main character, and her Belle sisters, initially they’re happy to do it because they think they’re doing a public service…until they realize all that it entails. Once selected to work either at the royal palace or at one of the selective teahouses and effectively removed from the public’s eye, all of that cherished behavior goes away and the Belles are treated little better than prisoners or slaves. They work long hard hours, until they’re practically collapsing from exhaustion and overuse of their powers, and those in charge don’t care as long as the money keeps rolling in and the customers keep lining up.
Camellia is especially disappointed because she expects to follow in her mother’s footsteps and become ‘The Favorite’ and work in the royal palace, but once she finally gets there, she realizes that being ‘The Favorite’ isn’t nearly as wonderful as she thought it would be. In fact, it’s downright awful as she encounters nothing but deceit, dark secrets, betrayals, and just so much ugliness in general. She finds herself at the mercy of Sophia, a particularly sadistic princess who constantly commands Camellia to use her arcana for revenge, to make people she doesn’t like ugly. Camellia is horrified by just how cruel and twisted Sophia is and becomes even more horrified when she realizes Sophia is in line to become Queen unless her ailing older sister can be cured of the mystery illness that has left her in a coma for years. The Queen, who is also ailing but is desperate to keep Sophia off the throne, begs Camellia for her help.
Even though it’s never been done before, can Camellia somehow use her arcana to heal the eldest royal daughter? The future of Orleans rests on her shoulders and Camellia must decide if she’s willing to take a risk that could cost her her own life…
Camellia. I found Camellia to be a compelling main character. She’s not perfect by any means, as we witness early in the book when she throws a near tantrum over the choosing of ‘The Favorite’, but she shows tremendous growth and compassion throughout the book, especially when she realizes the truth about The Belles and how they are treated, as well as once she sees firsthand just how sadistic and cruel Princess Sophia can be to those around her. I immediately began cheering Camellia on and hoping she would find a way to rebel against the evil Sophia.
Speaking of Sophia, if you’re into characters you love to hate, Sophia is definitely your girl. There is truly nothing redeeming about her personality that I could find. I cringed every time I turned the page and her name was there because I just knew she was there to inflict her cruelty on yet another innocent person who had done nothing to her. She may be exquisitely beautiful on the outside, thanks to the work of the Belles, but she is rotten to the core ugly on the inside.
The Worldbuilding and Magic System. I found everything about this world to be utterly captivating. Orleans itself is opulent and beautiful, and I loved the author’s attention to detail as she described it. Even more fascinating though was the actual legend that the book opens with, which explains how the curse came to be and how the Belles were then created to offset the curse. It was all just so inventive and the magical system of arcana and how they could be used to create beauty was mesmerizing. The author’s attention to detail as she described the process was truly exquisite and just so easy to visualize.
Beauty as a Veneer. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect going into The Belles, but it really struck me how much ugliness the author exposes in this beauty-obsessed world. It was a much darker read than I was expecting and I appreciated the added depth as Clayton rips that surface layer of beauty off and exposes what lies beneath, and in the case of the palace and the teahouses, it’s lies, betrayals, greed, unspeakable cruelty, and so much more.
The only real issue I had with The Belles had to do with pacing. Once I saw a few demonstrations of what the Belles could do with their arcana to transform and sculpt peoples’ bodies, I felt like I had a pretty good idea of what their powers entailed. Unfortunately though, the book doesn’t stop at just one or two beauty transformations. I understood that Camellia’s position required her to have regularly scheduled appointments throughout the day to make people beautiful, and even though I initially loved reading about how the process worked, there were just so many detailed, step-by-step accounts of these appointments that I started to get a little bored and skimmed through them to get to the more exciting parts.
The obsession with beauty brings out a lot of ugliness in people and The Belles powerfully explores and exposes this ugliness. The first book ends with a pretty big cliffhanger so I look forward to reading the second book in the series to see how that turns out. Is rebellion on the horizon for Camellia and the Belles?
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.