The Belles (The Belles #1) by Dhonielle Clayton

thebellesThe Belles is a book set in a world obsessed with beauty.  In one respect a social commentary on the lengths that people will go to in order to look beautiful on the outside but more than that a world that is far from beautiful when the surface is scratched,

For me this book was a surprise in more than one way.  I think I surprised myself by choosing it because frankly I read less YA these days and books filled with descriptions about beauty, hair and dresses are not really my typical sort of read – that isn’t a judgement on others just a statement of fact.  And yet, in spite of that I crumbled and requested a copy and here comes the final surprise – I enjoyed this more than I expected.  It was a fast read and quite beautifully written and whilst I have a few niggles this was an undoubtedly and unexpectedly easy book to get along with.  Just shows that maybe I need to sometimes be less hasty and reserve judgement until I’ve given a book a reasonable chance.

The book begins with a short history of Orléans.  At the start of the world the God of Sky fell in love with the Goddess of Beauty and together they had the children of Orléans  The Goddess of Beauty was so enamoured with her children that she forgot the God of Sky and in his anger he cursed their children.  Their skin would be grey, their eyes red and their hair like dead straw (not really the worst curse imaginable, sounds a little like me after too much wine, anyway…)  Unable to break the curse the Goddess of Beauty blessed the people of Orléans with the Belles.  Beauties who would grow like roses in the dark and who would bring light to the people of the world.

We are then introduced to Camellia and the other five Belles who, having just turned sixteen, will perform their debuts before the Queen.  Every three years a Beauté Carnaval is held and after competing against each other the Belles will be selected to reside at various Imperial Tea Houses.  One of them will be given the coveted title of ‘Favourite’ and will serve only the Royal Family.  Up until this point the Belles have led a privileged but sheltered position.  They know little of the world that they are about to be thrust into and are about to discover that once alloted their various positions their lives will no longer resemble the first few years of the gilded bubble they previously enjoyed.  Their days will be filled with appointments for nobles and wealthy court people.  They will be at the demand of capricious clients whose whims to look fabulous are never ending and who change their appearance almost as often as they change their clothes.  Put bluntly, they will be little more than slaves, chaperoned from A to B, watched at all times and kept locked within their rooms in the few moments of leisure that they have. But, more than that, they will begin to discover that their innocent upbringing serves more than one purpose.  There are darker things afoot in Orléans.  The Palace and Tea Rooms are riddled with intrigue and on top of that, other than the superficial beauty treatments that they undertake, the Belles don’t really have much idea about the real magic they possess.

I won’t go further into the plot as it will ruin the read for others.  The real thrust of the story is one of courtly intrigue and whilst it wasn’t particularly groundbreaking it was intriguing nonetheless.

The world building is, I admit, a little skimpy, but, I believe that’s with good reason.  Camilla knows no more of Orléans than we do.  She was raised in the beauty school and the day of her debut is her, as well as the reader’s, first view of the world outside.  For me the descriptions of the place and people put me in mind of the court of Marie Antoinette – here is beauty, adorned with jewels and lavished with every extravagance.  At first I couldn’t quite come to terms with how they all lived such opulent lifestyles until I realised that we, again like the Belles, were only witnessing the tip of the iceberg – the elite of the world, not the ‘great unwashed’ masses.  These are the people who can afford to spend decadently on their outward appearances.  Not for them the grey skin or red eyes that the Sky God inflicted on his children.  The great majority of the public cannot afford these cosmetic changes and in this story we don’t get to visit them and see what sort of lives they lead.  I can only imagine there’s a great disparity and if it’s anything like the French court that it put me in mind of I suspect rebellion may be brewing outside the Palace’s gilded gates.

In terms of the characters.  We follow Camellia.  She’s certainly not a bad character although she doesn’t always make the wisest of decisions.  She’s very ambitious and keen to please and this combination means that she sometimes rushes into things that might not necessarily be the best choice.  I sometimes felt like I wanted to shake her but then I’d think – she’s sixteen, she’s led a protected life and isn’t familiar with the cut throat ways of a royal court where favour can be bestowed and removed in the blink of an eye.

 

So, criticisms.  I don’t really think I’ve got a proper handle on the Belles or their magic.  It seems to be something inherent in the blood, arcana, but I’m not going to try and explain further because I’ll just end up fudging things.  I think the plot was a little easy to predict – but then I’m not the target audience – and there are a couple of romantic threads and, yes, they did make me roll my eyes a little.  There are also a couple of scenes within the story, one an attempted assault and another that is tantamount to torture that I feel I should just point out.  However, they’re not over the top, gratuitous or graphic and they help to display the particular unsavoury character traits of the antagonist of the piece.

All in all I found this a quick and easy read.  The writing is lovely, if occasionally a little overly sweet, and I think there is a lot still to be further explored.  In a world that is becoming increasingly obsessed with self image it explores the lengths that people will go to to look beautiful and, given the plot, the book gives particular meaning to the old saying that beauty is only skin deep.  Like I said above, surprisingly easy to read given that my more recent experiences of YA have not always been good.

I received a copy courtesy of the publisher, through Netgalley, for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.

 

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