Happy Friday, bloggers! Man, thank goodness for Fridays. I don’t know what I would do without a respite at the end of the week, a chance to decompress and do something more than the standard 9-5 drill. Not that I’ve been doing much of that lately (on the job hunt!) but somehow, Friday still manages to seem the most chill. Today I have the promised ARC review of a highly-anticipated fan favorite, which I Wished for on NetGalley and happily received shortly before release day on Tuesday! I’ve never received a book I’d Wished for before, so that was extremely cool and super nice of the publishers to grant. Plus, it was right on time for Black History month as an added bonus! I knew I would be reviewing this either way, but it was great to have a chance for an early read of this coveted new release. My review is NOT spoiler-free, so here is a warning in bold for you all: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. I found that I couldn’t talk about this book without going in-depth about key parts of the plot, so for a spoiler-free look at The Belles, check out the condensed review on my Goodreads [here].
« Many thanks to Disney-Hyperion, Netgalley & Dhonielle Clayton for the early review copy in exchange for my honest opinion. This is no way influenced how I feel about the book. »
Title: The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
Release date: February 6th, 2018
Genre: Young Adult – Fantasy
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.
Before we go any farther, yes, this was, at best, a 2-star read for me. I can’t discount how influential it is to have a woman of color predominantly featured on the cover and in the story, and to have a story that is made up of 90% women: strong women, flawed women, broken women, warrior women, and offers a dark and twisted tale on beauty and identity. However, all of this build-up couldn’t save what was overall a bad book. This isn’t an attack on Dhonielle, or on the publisher, or anyone who did truly enjoy this book. But for me? I really, really didn’t like it. Most of this review is going to be explaining exactly why I felt that way. There was simply no other way for me to make this my honest and unfiltered opinion of the book as a whole.
Book TWs: Attempted rape, Dead Lesbian trope, fatphobia, ableism.
We’re led into this world with quite an interesting mythological tale: once upon a time, there was a Goddess of Beauty and a God of the Sky who were in love. The goddess had a bunch of beautiful children, and the sky god saw that she was spending much more time with her gorgeous kids than with him, and got royally pissed. To ease his temper, the goddess went back to their home to basically tell him, “no, we’re still good!” But upon seeing him again, she realized that he was only in love with her for her beauty and selfishly sought to keep her to himself, so she left him and went back to her kids. In his godly rage, he cursed her children to be ugly forever, and with her last bit of magic, she passed on her beauty-creating powers to a select few who would bring beauty back into the world of ugliness and sorrow.
How cool is that? My summary isn’t perfect, but damn, what a beautiful introduction into this whole world and The Belles and why beauty is so prized amongst this population.
Too bad we don’t see any bit of it ever again after the very beginning of the story. Not one bit. Not even a mention of a tapestry depicting this. It’s just there to set the story up, like a cardboard cutout of a tree in the background of a high school play to make the audience believe that we’re in an actual forest. It had about that level of influence on the story as a whole.
Instead, the next chapter and introduction into our protagonist’s story establishes beauty as a commodity à la The Hunger Games, but not nearly as nuanced or creative. It is established that there is beauty in diversity, and people shouldn’t look the same, but instead of making this a gripping take on how we see beauty or turning into a major class issue (why do all the rich & royalty get to look super gorgeous but all the lower income people are gray and mottled?) the only thing that’s of any consequence to our protagonist is her being the “favorite” beauty maker in the whole…country? Region? I don’t think I mentioned that there’s no development of Orleans. I have no idea what the dynamics of this setting are. It’s just there.
That doesn’t make up a story, though. How about the characters? How are they? Well, Camellia has a bunch of sisters who are also named after flowers and other plants, and together they are competing to see where they’ll end up based on how good their beauty magic is. An all-around okay idea, but my biggest problem and by far the most significant flaw with the character development in the book as a whole is that there are almost no healthy, positive relationships between any of the characters. When this dynamic was introduced in Dhonielle’s previous series starter, Tiny Pretty Things, having none of the characters genuinely be friends with each other worked in favor of the plot. In this case, it only harmed the story and how Camellia interacted with others as a character and as a narrator. She has no female friends, and her relationship with her sisters (including her best friend, Amber) are superficial at best. For a book that’s 90% women, and strong, independent women at that, it felt like a weird choice to make.
The worst instance of poor character choices was when the story introduced Claudine. Claudine is a horribly two-dimensional character, only there for the purpose of being torn down in order to build up another character and/or the plot itself. Case in point: mid-way through the story, it’s established that Claudine is in a relationship with her servant, who is a woman. She tells Camille not to tell the Princess Sophia, because Sophia is the kind of person who makes Azula from ATLA look like Princess Peach, and will potentially ruin Claudine’s life. Unsurprisingly, a few chapters later, this exact thing happens, but what was completely unexpected was 1. Sophia telling the crowd that she has ordered Claudine to be engaged to a known rapist, and 2. Forcing Amber and Camille to literally torture the girl to the point of death after announcing this. WHICH THEY DO. Instead of standing up for themselves, or turning their magic on Sophia, or literally any other option, they murder the only lesbian character in order to fully establish Sophia as The Worst and Most Evil Character Ever. I really tried to figure out a way to phrase this paragraph in a nicer way, maybe without spoilers, but I couldn’t sugarcoat this. There is no other way to say it or justify this choice. I’m really upset about it and it ruined the story for me.
For a book that flew down from Hype Heaven on a wave of Everyone-Should-Read-This, I was sorely disappointed by the finished result. Not only are there glaring issues within the writing and basic story building, but what little build up we are given in nearly 450(!) pages culminates into a horribly triggering murder scene that made me want to throw this book across the room. I didn’t even mention the attempted rape scene earlier in the novel, because it is thrown in there SOLELY to make the murder scene even worse than it already is. I wish I could recommend this book, but I can’t. Writing this review made me upset all over again. If you liked this book, that’s fantastic. I’m really happy that you enjoyed it. But I can’t ignore the problematic, hurtful narrative that brought what could have been a fantastic story down.
If you like the idea of powerful young women working together to change the game for the future of their people, screw what the adults have to say, go watch Avatar: The Last Airbender. The girls in this story reminded me of weaker and crummier versions of Katara, Azula, Toph, Suki, Mai, Ty Lee, and the rest of my bomb ladies that took incredible risks and faced physical, mental, and emotional obstacles to save the day and the world. That’s my recommendation for y’all. Treat yourself. Enjoy your Friday night.