Author: Dhonielle Clayton
Pub date: Feb. 2018 (read Jan. 2018 as audiobook)
Narrator: Rosie Jones
Series: The Belles #1
Where to start with The Belles? First of all, I listened to it as an audiobook and I really liked the narrator! She had a great tone for this book and she was really enjoyable to listen to. As for the content? I heard this book had teeth, but about halfway through I was wondering when it was going to start to bite. I wouldn’t call it a slow start because the story is still pretty engaging, but it’s a bit repetitive at the beginning and it wasn’t until the second half of the book that the story grew fangs. But boy does it ever get intense! Because of the start, I thought it was a 3 star read overall, but the author definitely steps up her game in the second half of the book and I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel.
The Belles is set in a beauty-centric fantasy world based on New Orleans, called Orleans (or-lee-on). People have become grey in Orleans and only a select few talented Belles can restore colour and make people beautiful again. The Belles power come from their personal arcana (unsure of spelling because I read as audiobook) and they can change anything about a person, from hair, eye, or skin colour, to height and weight, to bone structure, and even the well-being of internal organs. In this world, people are obsessed with beauty and must pay for beauty appointments. However, the changes don’t last forever and the grey will always start to creep back in, so the rich are always changing their looks based on the latest fashion.
Camellia Beauregard is one of 5 Belles coming of age this year. She has spent her whole life training to be a Belle and she will have one chance to present her powers to the Royal Family, who will pick one of the Belles to be their favourite. The Favourite will work for the royal family and their courtiers, while the rest of the Belles will be appointed to other beauty salons around the city. All of the Belles want to be named the favourite, especially Camellia and her sister Belle, Amber.
Once the Belles start working though, they discover that working as a Belle is not quite what they expected and start hearing about strange things happening in the salons. The Royal Family is also in a state of upheaval because the time is coming for the Queen to declare her heir. By rights it should be her older daughter, Charlotte, but she has been in a bewitched sleep for years and has never awoken. If Charlotte does not awaken, the heir will have to be her younger sister Sophia, and the more the Belles learn about Sophia, the more they fear the kind of queen she might be.
The Belles had a really interesting plotline in that it’s really not clear for a while where the story is going. There is a large mystery element to the story and because we don’t learn the full depth of the plot until later, there’s a lot of world building taking place in the first half of the book. Like I said, I didn’t dislike the first half of the book, I think that Clayton did some really good world-building and really delved in to some of the intricacies of the world she’s created. But the plot feels a bit nebulous after the favourite is announced and I thought there was a disproportionate amount of time spent on various beauty appointments and treatments. It was interesting, but I just wanted the author to get to the point.
But I can’t really fault her because the time spent on world building definitely paid off in the second half of the book. The second half is nasty! Things get really dark and pace of the plot picks up immensely. I liked the ending a lot because Clayton answers some of the more pressing questions and mysteries, but still leaves enough threads open to propel us into the next book.
Clayton addresses a lot of really interesting social themes in her book, which is what made it stand out for me. It’s obviously about beauty and how highly it is valued by society and how we assign value based on beauty. In many ways, beauty is a social construct and is very objective. In our own world, ideas of beauty differ greatly from country to country, but looking at North America, there are certain attributes we tend to value greater than others, thinness being the most obvious one that comes to mind. However, like Orleans, we are constantly changing our minds on other attributes. The one that comes to mind immediately for me is eyebrows. In the 2000’s thin eyebrows were all the rage, while now big eyebrows are definitely in.
I found it interesting that Clayton’s world features a monarchy, but women still tended to be de-valued. She draws attention to the different beauty standards that exist for men and women, but how men still want to look good too. However there is a sexual assault scene in the book and I found it really surprising that in a matriarchal society such as this, people still went out of their way to excuse men’s actions.
Finally, the villains in this book are top notch. There’s a lot of drama and several villains, with varying levels of, shall we say evil? Our number one villain is totally nuts and will get right up inside your head. She reminded me of Umbridge a little bit because it’s the perfect example of how smug and evil a bit of power can make some people. I really don’t know where Clayton plans to take this story in the next book, but colour me intrigued! I already have an ARC for the next book, which is being published in March, so I’m planning to start it very soon!