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 tend to the royal family. 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 break the rules she lives by to save the ailing princess, she faces an impossible decision: protect herself and the way of the Belles, or risk her own life, and change the world forever.
The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton is one of the most hyped releases of the year so far, and for me, at least, it did not disappoint. It has been a long while since I’ve lost myself in a fantasy world so completely. The novel is the epitome of slow burn, a choice that is vital to a narrative in which absolutely nothing is what it initially seems.
Clayton has packed so much into these pages: a riveting mystery, a terrifying villain, deep analysis of the commodification of women’s bodies and how the idea of beauty in itself can be monstrous. It’s a book about high status people, and people who were taught to believe they had such status while actually never having any power at all. There are two hot guys in it: a charming prince and stern, disapproving guard. I would have both, and I hope by the end of the series, Camellia does.
In the world of Orléans, beauty is the most valuable commodity available. Everyone except the Belles is born grey and shrivelled with red eyes, but with the power of the Belles they are able, depending on their resources, to turn themselves into either a regular looking human or a spectacularly ‘beautiful’ one. In this story, the regular humans we spend time with are all either royals or noblemen and women and so their lives are consumed with keeping up with the latest beauty trends – everything from blue skin to metallic golden hair. Each procedure is incredibly painful, but people go back time and again because living in their natural grey form is completely socially unacceptable. Their lives and resources are all consumed by achieving beauty.
The ideal of beauty is a trap so thoroughly entrenched in how society functions that its value is never questioned, an idea Clayton personifies with the Belles, who initially believe they are and very much appear to be of the highest status in society, but are in fact little more than slaves. When we first meet Camellia and the other Belles they are travelling from where they grew up, completely cut off from the rest of the world, to take on their roles in society. They’re (mostly) excited to start, and (mostly) don’t question their role or status, believing as they have been taught that they are vital to society’s function – that makes them really important, right? If ‘important’ means working long hours with no days off for no money in a way that slowly destroys your body and depletes your powers all while being totally cut off from everyone you’ve ever known AND never allowed to leave your new ‘home’… then sure… *side eye*
This is where Clayton’s slow burn style truly comes into its own. Even while as the reader you’re thinking ‘there is something seriously wrong with this situation’, the Belles aren’t, because this is all they’ve ever known. They are slaves who have been tricked into believing they’re Goddesses, and it takes some serious time – and trauma – to de-programme themselves from the propaganda they have received for their entire lives.
Oh, it’s just SO GOOD.
I have not been this excited for a sequel in ages. You know that bit at the end of Handmaid’s Tale season 1 where June and the other handmaids refuse to murder Janine as ordered, then they all march off together and June thinks “they should never have given us uniforms if they didn’t want us to be an army”*? I CAN’T WAIT for the Belles to have that moment.
Bring on book 2!
*side note, almost a year later I cry EVERY TIME I even think about that scene and, in fact, had to pause writing this post to go compose myself. I don’t know about you, but that was probably the greatest moment of fictional catharsis I have EVER experienced.