I bought this book a year ago with the generous funds I received on Patreon. It’s been sitting on my shelf since then. I’ve tried to start it several times, it’s popped onto my ‘currently reading’ list on Goodreads a few times, but then other books always took precedence either due to release date or being on hold at the library. But recently I was granted an advanced copy of its sequel, The Everlasting Rose, via NetGalley and since The Everlasting Rose is releasing on March 5th its the perfect time to read The Belles.
Despite it being a kind of dystopian fantasy novel, the setting and storyline were almost completely brand new to me. The magic is similar to the Corporalki Grisha in Leigh Bardugo’s universe, but there are only six girls in the current generation of Belles who can do what’s necessary to bring beauty and color to the kingdom of Orleans. They perform for the royal family at the Carnaval of Beauty and then the queen picks the Favorite, who will be the Belle of the palace. The rest of the Belles are places at teahouses around the islands of the kingdom.
The narrator Camille wants to be the favorite, but she is reckless in her performance and her sister Amber is picked over her. But something disastrous happens at the palace and Amber is sent away, at which point the queen summons Camille to take her place. Once we get a glimpse in the palace, especially Princess Sophia, it’s obvious that something really sinister is brewing under the surface, and Camille is just too naive to pick up on it. Things become darker and darker until Sophia’s true plan is revealed, which threatens everything that the Belles believe and stand for.
The racial elements being laid out in this novel are obvious. Clayton presents the pursuit of beauty in a sugar coated, shiny way, but you’ll find yourself asking whether this system is sustainable in the long term, especially with the number of Belles dwindling. Finding connections between the novel’s description of Belle-products and procedures to African-American beauty products and procedures is something you should be able to do without much prompting. I imagine any young black person would read this book and feel an immediate connection to the story.
My only real criticism is that while the descriptions of this new world begin as lush and gorgeous, as the story moves forward they become repetitive and unclear. The number of times we hear that “belle-roses” are on display is legion, and belle-buns, belle-products, and on and on. I feel like while some scenes were easy to imagine, many others left too much to my own imagination when this world was new and needed to be built more for me to envision what it looked like.
It was easiest for me to compare this book to Marie Lu’s Legend series. We see a main character who is a prodigy in her field, expects to be a part of the system, and works hard to qualify to be a leader in that system, only to inevitably see the darkness that bolsters the system and therefore become a rebel against it. While this plot fell apart for me when I moved on from Legend to Lu’s second book Prodigy, I am hopeful that Clayton’s The Everlasting Rose (out 3/5/19) will keep my interest piqued. I am very curious about how this re-Belle-ion will work out, especially given how the entire population requires beautification and is almost addicted to the process.
I have a DRC of The Everlasting Rose, and will have that review out to you shortly. As for The Belles, it is an interesting concept and worth reading and exploring if only for a fresh take on fantasy. I enjoyed and finished it. Give it a try.
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