Beauty is in the blood… for a special few. These are the most revered citizens of Orléans, and every generation is called upon to use their magic for the good of the people. This is the world of the Belles, who are pressed into service at a young age. They set the standard for beauty, they develop the trends, but no one is more revered than the royal Favorite, and that is all that Camellia wants. But it may not be all she imagined.
In The Belles, Dhonielle Clayton has created a world where people are born devoid of color – grey skin, red eyes, hair the texture of straw – except the Belles, who are born colorful and beautiful and magical. Using their arcana and specially-made beauty products, Belles are able to change a person’s appearance. Because of their abilities, they are highly sought after by the wealthy, who seek their treatments so that they, too, can be beautiful. Limits are placed on treatments depending on your wealth and status, and rules exist about how thin you can be, how big breasts can be, and so on. Belles are installed and put to work at various teahouses throughout Orléans, but there is one from every generation who is designated as the Favorite.
There was a bit of controversy with this book, with people decrying it as ableist, fatphobic, and queerphobic. The ableism accusations, I believe, are attributed to the Gris’ normal appearance, which is close to albinism, being called ugly. I don’t believe that’s the author’s intent, mostly because I’m fairly certain they aren’t meant to have albinism. As for their natural looks being called ugly, a huge part of this book is debating what “beauty” is. I’m sure over the rest of the series, the idea will be explored more in depth, but for now, a big part of The Belles is about what defines “beauty” and the lengths people will go to chasing a superficial standard. This is where the fatphobia concerns come into play as well. I believe Clayton has painted a view of a society so concerned about arbritrary attractiveness that we are meant to find that attitude repellant. It makes femininity into a punishment, creating a culture of tyrannical fashion, where in order to be anyone, you have to look a certain way. We’re supposed to look at these image-obsessed people and go, “Whoa, chill out a bit.”
As for the queerphobic content, again, I don’t believe that’s the intent. The Fashion Minister is, I think, meant to be gay, and he has an army of “dandies” who assist him. A dandy is a term for a man who is obsessed with fashion, and that’s how it’s applied here. It didn’t come across to me as being derogatory against gay men. Orléans is obviously modeled after Victorian fashion and culture, which is where the term “dandy” originated. But others may read it differently. There is also another thing, which LGBTQ+ readers may want to be aware of, but it’s a spoiler, so highlight to read: There is one character who is not so much explicitly a lesbian, but in a relationship with a woman. She is killed near the end of the book. There are reasons why it’s her, specifically, who is killed, but it’s not really done all that well, and it can be hurtful regardless of whether or not the story justifies it. It’s disappointing, to say the least. (End spoiler)
I quite enjoyed The Belles. I had heard marvelous things about it, and this was one of the books I got from last year’s BookExpo that I was very excited to read. Clayton is fantastic with world-building. I could easily picture Orléans in my mind – the fashion and the buildings and the city itself. We’re still left in the dark about the existence of the Belles themselves, but we start learning more about them close to the end of the book, and I believe we’ll uncover more as the series goes on.
This book does suffer from a bit of a pacing issue. The Belles is almost 500 pages, and it takes more than one-fifth of that to start getting into the meat of the story. Much of the first 100+ pages are spent developing the world, the context, and main character Camellia. I was nearly halfway through it before I truly became invested, and some readers may give up before they get to that point. There is a mystery at work, and Camellia discovers snippets of it, but her curiosity waxes and wanes as the plot demands it, which can be a bit frustrating.
As always seems to be the case with me, I didn’t realize this was the first in a series until I was almost finished with the book and I realized there wasn’t nearly enough left to resolve everything. Now that everything is established, though, I’m looking forward to diving into the meat of the story. There is much introduced and quickly dismissed in The Belles that I hope will be brought up again in future books.
It’s always difficult to review a book without being too spoilery. How much can I say without giving away too many details? Some of the reveals are telegraphed fairly early. I didn’t pick up on all of them immediately, but I did start figuring things out closer to the climax. A lot of things rely heavily on Camellia and the rest of the Belles being purposely left in the dark, which is annoying. Camellia at times is a huge liability because she doesn’t like to follow the rules, but if she knew why she had to follow them, she would probably not be as reckless. But, of course, the story depends on her not knowing so that we the audience can learn as she does.
Dystopian societies are nothing new in YA literature, but I am always fascinated by them, some more so than others. The Belles reminds me a lot of another YA book, The Jewel. I’m intrigued by the society Clayton has created, and I’m anxious to know more about it and the history of the Belles, especially after the reveal at the end of the book.
While The Belles contains some potentially problematic elements, I feel that it’s worth a read. I would understand if others disagreed.
The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton is published by Disney-Hyperion and is currently available wherever books are sold.
Author: Jamie Sugah
Jamie has a BA in English with a focus in creative writing from The Ohio State University. She self-published her first novel, The Perils of Long Hair on a Windy Day, which is available through Amazon. She is currently an archivist and lives in New York City with her demon ninja vampire cat. She covers television, books, movies, anime, and conventions in the NYC area.
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