The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

The Blurb On The Back:

I am a Belle.  I control beauty.

In the opulent world of Orléans, the people are born grey and damned, and only a Belle’s powers can make them beautiful. 

Camellia Beauregard wants to be the favourite Belle – the one chosen by the queen to live in the royal palace and be recognised as the most talented Belle in the land.

But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favourite is not everything she always dreamed it would be.  Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that her powers may be far greater – and far darker – than she ever imagined.

When the queen asks Camellia to save the ailing princess by using her powers in unintended ways, she faces an impossible decision: protect herself and the way of the Belles, or risk her own life, and change the world forever … 

You can order THE BELLES by Dhonielle Clayton from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

Today is Camellia Beauregard’s 16th birthday.  She shares it with her 5 sisters and fellow Belles – girls who were blessed by the Goddess of Beauty with the power to control and affect how a person looks.  This is a vital ability in the archipelago of Orléans (a string of connected islands ruled over by the Queen), whose people are born grey-skinned and red-eyed thanks to a curse from the God of Sky and whose ill looks send them mad unless a Belle can make them beautiful.  

Today is also the day of the Beauté Carnaval – a festival of beauty held every 3 years, during which the Belles display their abilities on selected children in front of the Queen and Royal Family and are assigned to various beauty tearooms and other roles around Orléans.  Most importantly though, one of the Belles will be selected by the Queen as the Favourite, the personal Belle to the Royal Family and the elite of Orléans.  

Camellia is desperate to be Favourite, partly because her mother was a former Favourite and drilled into her how important it was for Camellia to follow in her footsteps, and partly because she knows that she’s the most talented of all the Belles, able to craft stunning looks that draw gasps of wonder and delight.  Her only real rival is her sister and best friend, Ambrosia (known to everyone as Amber), who’s just as talented as Camellia but more obedient and biddable.  Camellia knows that Madam Du Barry (who raises each generation of Belles and supervises them once they go out into the world) thinks that Amber should be the Favourite but is determined to show the Queen that she is the best.

It’s not until the Belles arrive at court, though, that Camellia begins to realise that life as a Belle isn’t all glamour and trying to influence the beauty-scopes.  There are dark secrets in the palace, some of which relate to the Queen’s oldest (and favourite) daughter Princess Charlotte (who’s been asleep for several years after falling mysteriously ill) and some relate to Princess Sophia (who is obsessed with beauty and with the Belles but whose offer of friendship comes with a price).  Then there’s the capricious and unsavoury nature of the Orléans aristocratic elite and the strange goings on in the Teahouses, which get assigned their own Belles who sell their talents to those who can afford to pay but where there are mysterious after-hours beauty events, even when the Belles aren’t present.

The more involved Carmellia becomes with the Orléans elite, the more at odds she finds herself with the other Belles and particularly Amber.  Fortunately there are diversions, like the handsome and wickedly charming Auguste Fabry (the son of the Minister for Sea), but with Madame Du Barry and her awful daughter, Elisabeth, watching Carmellia’s every move, Carmellia is all too aware of the pressure building up around her, demanding that she use her Belle powers in ways they were never intended to be used for …

Dhonielle Clayton’s YA fantasy (the first in a trilogy) has interesting ideas about the power of beauty and society’s obsession with it.  Unfortunately the pacing was far too slow, the plot relies very heavily on contrivance (with Carmellia behaving foolishly when needed) and the characterisation just isn’t interesting or consistent enough to hold my attention notably the “friendship” between Amber and Carmellia, which never convinces.

Part of the reason why I was so disappointed with this book is that there are some really clever ideas that work on a number of levels.  The mythology underlying Orléans where everyone starts of as a Gris – grey-skinned, red-eyed and straw haired – and relies on the Belles to make them beautiful or they will go mad is a strong idea.  It also forms a neat contrast with the way she shows how the maintenance of beauty and search for stunning looks also drives people mad, most notably Princess Sophia, who wants to be in the Newsies and celebrated for her looks.  

The world building is also very strong with Clayton giving Orléans an almost 1920s feel to it with its mix of gossip rags, excess and the fantasy touches such as ballon communications.  Similarly I was interested in how the Belles’ magic works, with Clayton giving a lot of build up to the importance of their blood and how it’s treated and also the way in which each girl balances their abilities with each having particular transformation strengths.

Unfortunately the story just didn’t work for me.  For starters, it takes a long time to get going with the first 120 pages devoted to the competition and revelation of who the Favourite will be.  Clayton packs a lot of background in here, trying to establish the relationship between Camellia and Amber, the world building for Orléans, how the court works and where the Belles fit into it all.  However it does feel very lopsided and slow and what could have been an interesting twist gets undone too quickly so the impact doesn’t land and at the same time an opportunity to explore life outside the palace and courts feels squandered.  Conversely, an awful lot gets picked into the final quarter, which means that a lot of the emotional impact gets lost.

This brings me to my next issue with the book which is Camellia herself.  She’s a surprisingly passive character – one to whom things happen more than who makes things happen for herself.  That would be less of an issue for me if she showed any kind of intellectual curiosity or spark but she just didn’t.  For example, during her time in Madam Claire’s teahouse she hears talk of other Belles who she knows can’t exist because the only Belles are her sisters and those who return to Madam Du Barry’s care but she makes zero attempt to investigate this or really ask questions.  Similarly, when she realises that Amber has lost the Favourite role, she doesn’t make any real attempt to ask her what happened or even find out how she’s doing, which makes a mockery of their so-called friendship.  

To be fair, there are indications as to why Camellia is so unquestioning and lacking in dynamism – there are hints as to the Belles having gone through an accelerated ageing programme and they are not exposed much to the world.  But given that there are scenes where Camellia is willing to go against the rules and show a bit of spark (e.g. when she engages with Auguste even though Belles are forbidden from talking to men on their own), it just highlights how passive she is the rest of the time.  

The frisson between Camellia and Auguste isn’t bad but it does feel like something I’ve seen hundreds of times before.  Auguste is very much in the vein of charming YA bad boys, who provokes and challenges Camellia but seems genuinely interested in her.  Because this is a YA novel, there’s an obligatory love triangle, the third point beings Camellia’s stoic, somewhat dull guard Rémy who doesn’t do a huge amount in this book and isn’t particularly interesting.

The other characters in the book are little more than caricatures given how broadly they’re sketched.  This is particularly the case with Princess Sophia who is an absolute cartoon – too over the top insane to be convincingly menacing – and whose relationship with her mother makes zero sense (especially in the scenes where the queen appears to be utterly denuded of power or agency for which no explanation is given).

Ultimately, I came away from this book feeling like it was all a bit of a missed opportunity and I simply didn’t care enough about Camellia or the other Belles to want to check out the next book.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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