The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

Book review

I received this e-book from the publishers via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Partial synopsis from Goodreads – 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.

Firstly can we all just appreciate how beautiful this cover is, it is bloody stunning. Which is fitting for a book in which the entire world is centred around beauty. Everything in this book is beautiful, the characters, the setting and the writing. I loved the little homages to New Orleans that were sprinkled throughout the book, the vibe, the food and the terrain.

“It’s a wonderland of palace buildings with golden turrets and glittering arches, fountains full of crimson and ivory fish, topiary mazes of clipped trees, shrubs and bushes in every possible geometric shape. Imperial canals circle the square, holding jewelled boats bright as gemstones and shaped like smiling moons on midnight blue water. They spill over with passengers eager to watch us. The royal sablier, the columnar hourglass that measures the length of day and night, churns with sand the color of white diamonds. The sky and its clouds are made of melting cherries and flaming oranges and burnt grapefruit as the sun sinks into the sea. The dying sunlight flashes my own reflection on the glass. My powdered skin makes me look like an overly frosted piece of caramel cake.”

We are drawn into this world with the vivid descriptions, we discover it with this crop of Belles, mainly Camellia. We see the beauty and are swept away in the grandeur right alongside the girls. We dive into this world where beauty is everything. We see the lengths people go to, to fit in, to be accepted and to be loved. Children aren’t rewarded for their talents, they are literally moulded into a new version of themselves. For a book that looks pretty and is full of beauty, it sure contains a lot of ugliness.

Camellia exists to make the people beautiful, to carve them into the best versions of themselves and if that isn’t enough she will also calm their temperament and personality. The people of Orleans are born grey, they literally have no colour. So the Belles use their Arcana to bring colour to the world.

‘Very well. Do you think men should be as beautiful as women?” His question curls around me like smoke, sliding over and under my skin, and through my dress. His words hold a challenge. One I want to win. The women around my gazebo grow quiet. A nervous tremor flutters in my stomach. ‘I think its unfair that women must parade around like peacocks and men do not. There should be an equal effort.” The left side of his mouth lifts in a smile. “But aren’t women supposed to be more beautiful than men in order to be enjoyed?” “Are women quills or teletropes or new carriages?” “No they are not.”

This paragraph was when I knew I was going to enjoy this book. This, in someone else’s hands could have turned into a generic, insipid story, but in the hands of Dhonielle Clayton, it becomes a clever commentary on societies expectations of both men and women, to behave and look a certain way. The double standard when it comes to women. They are allowed to be beautiful, but it has to be for others pleasure. If they are too proud of their looks, body or anything really, they are declared shallow and full of themselves. If they dress in a way that others don’t like they are called names, if a woman dares to enjoy her sexuality she is labelled a slut.

Here we have a sisterhood in the Belles. They have grown up together, learnt together, they are all there for each other. But they are also expected to compete, to fight with each other. They are discouraged from forming close bonds with each other as a means of control and just like in today’s society, women who stand together are feared, they are powerful, so the scared and corrupt try to pit women against each other. They antagonise and manipulate, they belittle, so that they stand over the oppressed. The Belles aren’t given a lot of information. This is another means of control. Knowledge is power and those that have it, do not like to give it up. Once again, in society, those that need it most don’t always have access to education, or the tools needed to make the best of their education. These are all things that need to change, not just in the book, but in todays society as well. I love the way an author can use fantasy to bring attention to real life issues. You know its done well when the author doesn’t come across as preachy. They make their point and plant a seed in the reader’s mind. They make you want to talk about things with those around you. They make you want to stand up and be heard.

The characters grow in such a way that we see that their society isn’t ok, we get the uneasy feeling as they get it. Camellia starts out as a girl willing to do anything to become Favourite, she has worked so hard, she believes she is the best and she believes she has earned it. After an unexpected hitch in the road, she gets given her dream. Once she is drawn into the beauty and intrigue of the royal court, she finally realises that just because something looks pretty on the outside, it doesn’t mean it’s not rotten on the inside.

It has an almost, but not really love triangle that made me a little uneasy. Camellia is rather naïve, but while it can be a little annoying, it’s completely understandable and it works well for the story. Her growth is wonderful.

The Belles was a wonderful, engaging read that will be a big hit for the YA Fantasy fans.

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