Tuesday 20 February 2018

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Review: The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

The Belles by Dhonielle ClaytonNetGalleyThe Belles by Dhonielle Clayton (eProof) - 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 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.
From Goodreads.

I received this eProof for free from Gollancz for the purposes of providing an honest review.

Trigger Warning: This book features sexual assault.

I've been absolutely dying to read The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton. There has been so much buzz about it for months now, so I've been eagerly anticipating reading it myself. It was absolutely worth all the praise it's received - The Belles is incredible!

In a world where everyone is born with grey skin, grey hair the texture of straw, and red eyes, Camellia and her five sisters, are Belles; girls born with colour, and the magical ability to make others beautiful. Camellia desperately wants to be picked by the Queen as the favourite Belle, meaning she'll do the beauty work for the royal family and it's courtiers. But life as a Belle at court isn't what she expected. The courtiers are demanding, requesting extreme beauty work that leaves Camellia exhausted. But the work is only half of it; she is asked by the Queen to use her powers in ways they've never been used before, in an effort to try and save her older daughter, Princess Charlotte, who has been in a deep sleep for many years. She discovers there are secrets hidden in the palace, kept from the people and Belles alike. When she uncovers the truth about the Belles, she questions everything she's ever been taught. She has a choice: keep the secrets and protect herself, or try to save the princess, change the world, and risk her own life in the process.

I cannot tell you just how incredible The Belles is. It's not just about beauty, it is, itself, beautiful; with gorgeous, decadent writing and rich, lavish imagery painting the most stunning of pictures, the act of reading this book is a luxurious experience. It's so opulent, it begs to be read out loud. And Clayton has created such an incredible world. It's high fantasy, so there's court life and intrigue, but it also has a modern feel, with newspapers and gossip magazines, it's own version of paparazzi, and technology; cameras, blimps with screens, lights for every purpose, devices to make your voice travel, and to hear what's being said at a distance, a mail delivery service using balloons, and so much more.

On the surface, the work of the Belles seems harmless enough, something akin to paying for a makeover, in a world where beauty means more than anything else, a shallow and superficial world, maybe, but not too different from our own. But then you realise that beauty work is actually a lot more like cosmetic surgery; it's not enhancing your appearance with make-up, or making it seem as if you're beautiful through some kind of glamour, it's actually physically changing your body - skin, bones and muscle, as well as colour and texture - and it's excruciatingly painful. Sure, you're given Belle-rose tea, which acts as an anaesthetic, but it doesn't get rid of all the pain. And the beauty work never lasts, it all wears off eventually.

But the people of Orléans are obsessed with beauty because being beautiful is everything; it's a sign of wealth, because beauty work is expensive; it's a sign of status, because those who aren't important can't afford beauty work. Without the Belles, you're grey and shrivelled and ugly, the dregs of society, and the people of Orléans can't imagine anything worse. But it's not just about being beautiful, it's about being the right kind of beautiful. Hair colours, skin colours, eye colours, bone structures, body sizes and frames come in and out of fashion. You don't want to be unfashionable, but you also want to be seen to set the newest trend. Who cares about the expense or how much pain you have to go through?

I did feel it took a while to get going. As sumptuous as the descriptions are, at the beginning, I felt it slowed the story down a bit; absolutely everything seemed to be described in extensive detail, that I did get a little tired of it, and just wanted the story to actually begin, to go somewhere. But once it did, the pace picks up. At first, we're discovering the world and Camille's life at court; the people she meets, the relationships she develops, how her arcana - her magical ability - works. We learn more and more about the people of Orléans, and their desperation to be beautiful.

Camellia - or, as she prefers, Camille - is in constant demand. And despite the fact that she is the one with the power, her advice is often unheeded. There was one moment when a woman comes to Camille with her five-year-old daughter, wanting Camille to make her more beautiful. As far as Camille is concerned, she's already pretty enough, maybe just needs refreshing a little as the grey is starting to show through, but the girl's mother disagrees. She has a very specific look for her daughter in mind, and won't accept anything less. It's quite clear from talking to the little girl that she is never beautiful enough for her mother. The beauty work her mother demands is so painful, the little girl has to be forcibly held down by her mother and a servant while she's screaming in pain. It's so shocking to read. And although Camille doesn't think the little girl needed such work, she still thought she needed refreshing, which would also have been painful. It's one thing to pay to put yourself through pain to be beautiful, but to forcibly do it to a child was just horrifying. The Belles really makes you think about the beauty industry, how our patriarchal society puts so much value on a woman's looks, and how we strive to be beautiful, how far we'll go to try to reach those impossible beauty standards.

But along with the beauty work, there's so much else going on; voices screaming and crying out in the night; the Big Sisters - the last generation's Belles - who now wear veils for some unknown reason; the darker side to the Belles' power and what they never imagined they could do; the illness or condition that put Princess Charlotte into a deep sleep four years ago, from which she has never woken. Loyalties are tested, lines are drawn, and the power balance is at risk. We have a sadistic villain who will horrify you, but delight you with how brilliantly sinister and terrifying they are. I was reminded a lot of Queen Levana from Marissa Meyer's The Lunar Chronicles, particularly Fairest, Levana's own story.

Before I end my review, I think it's important to note that Camille is a Black woman. At I said at the beginning of my review, although everyone else is born grey, the Belles are born with colour - so Camille is born with golden brown skin. There are no races in The Belles, as everyone except the Belles are born the same, but you can choose your skin colour, by shade, and the people of Orléans change their skin colour like they change their clothes. Belles can't change anything about themselves, they stay as they are, like we do, so Camille has golden brown skin - a Black woman - throughout. Camille is beautiful, but not only because she has colour, she is particularly very beautiful. She can't change the way she looks, but nobody would think she needs to. And this is so very important. This is a high fantasy, with a Black woman as the protagonist, who is beautiful in the eyes of everyone. And this is rare. We're doing better when it comes to high fantasy with people of colour as protagonists, in YA and adult, but not well enough. Apart from a few books here and there, the protagonists tend to always be white. I think it's also important to note that Camille is in a position of power; she has this magical ability, and her abilities are sought after; she is popular and is of high standing. Who has her own servant. Again, a Black woman, in a high fantasy. This is practically unheard of, which makes this book not just a fantastic high fantasy novel, but an incredibly important story. For what it says about beauty, but also so teen readers - particularly Black teen girls - see a Black woman, of high standing, in a position of power, who is beautiful, in a high fantasy novel - with a beautiful Black woman on the cover, too. There's still so much more needed, but slowly but surely, teens of colour are being given books where they get to star in magical fantasy stories, too.

The Belles ends on such a cliffhanger, and I am so desperate to know where the story will go from here! It's captivating, exciting, and just incredible. Book two cannot come soon enough. The Belles is exquisite; a temptation that is impossible to resist.

Thank you to Gollancz via NetGalley for the eProof.

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Published: 8th February 2018
Publisher: Gollancz
Dhonielle Clayton's Website

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1 comment:

  1. I agree that this book was fantastic! I loved the commentary that it gave us on the pain we'll go through and the things we'll sacrifice for beauty.

    Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction