The history books say that the God of the Sky married the Goddess of Beauty and their children populated Orléans. But when Beauty started spending all her time with their children instead of her husband, Sky cursed the people of Orléans, giving them “skin the color of a sunless sky, eyes the shade of blood, hair the texture of rotten straw, and a deep sadness that quickly turned to madness.” So, Beauty created the Belles, special girls who have magic that can bring beauty and joy back to the people of Orléans.
Camellia and her five sisters are Belles. They’ve been training and practicing all their lives and now, on their sixteenth birthday, they are on their way to Orléans to be honored and assigned their Belle duties. Camellia knows that she is the most creative and gifted of her sisters and she expects to be named as the queen’s Favorite, which means that she’ll get to live in the palace and serve the royal family. But, when she goes off-script during the debut ceremony, she risks being demoted to working in one of the famous tea houses where nobles and other wealthy people pay to be beautified. It’s still an honor, but Camellia thinks she deserves to be the Favorite.
Not long after arriving in the decadent kingdom of Orléans, Camellia and her sisters are assigned their duties and separated. That’s when they discover that what they expected does not match the reality of their lives as Belles. There are treacherous dangers to be navigated and ethical decisions to be made, especially in the royal court.
I read The Belles (2018) because it’s a finalist for both the Locus and Hugo Awards for Best Young Adult Novel. The Belles is imaginative, nicely written (though Dhonielle Clayton is too fond of similes, especially those related to pretty desserts), well-paced, and exciting. I was never bored and, when The Belles was over, I was eager to find out what happens next.
But the weaknesses are noticeable and they are all related to characterization. First is the Love-At-First-Sight problem that destroys so many Young Adult novels for me. It’s hard to respect characters who fall for someone so quickly based on how they look and not based on anything having to do with their character traits. I have reason to hope, though, that Clayton will fix this problem in the sequel (and I hope she doesn’t fix it with the dreaded Love Triangle).
A characterization issue that further undermines the plot is that the villain of the story isn’t at all believable. She’s the princess and she’s a tyrant. She has two parents (the king and queen) who are able to run the kingdom but, for some reason, cannot control their daughter. They hold the purse strings, they hire the staff, they direct the guards and the army. They are completely aware of the problems with their daughter but act like they have no control, even lamenting to other characters that the princess is not worthy to be the heir. Their lack of control felt like a plot device and I didn’t believe it.
As for the other characters, few of them felt solid. Some of this may have been purposeful, perhaps a reflection of the superficiality of these beauty-desiring nobles, but it didn’t seem (despite what the publisher says in the blurb below) that this message was the point of The Belles because there was no contrast (other than beauty) between the Belles and the Gris (the gray-skinned, red-eyed, straw-haired people). According to the legend, the Belle beauty treatments are medicinal. The people of Orléans have “a deep sadness that quickly turned to madness” and they are damned unless they are beautified by a Belle. So, they can either undergo beauty treatments, or they can be depressed, crazy, and damned. If you’ve got to be beautified to avoid sadness, madness, and damnation, why shouldn’t you choose the hair color and nose shape you like?
An argument that Clayton could have made (but didn’t, at least in this first novel in the series) would be that if the Belles didn’t have to use so much power on each individual beauty treatment, they could beautify (and save) everyone in the kingdom instead of just those who could afford it. It is possible that I’m being unfair here — all has not been revealed and clearly there are secrets left to uncover — but I think the plot would have worked better if beauty wasn’t tied to mental health and if Clayton had shown us that living without the treatments was a viable option.
The publisher’s blurb promises that The Belles is “weaving deeper questions about the commodification of women’s bodies, gender equality, racial identity, and vanity with high-stakes action and incredible imagery.” I agree with the “high-stakes action and incredible imagery,” and I enjoyed The Belles for those qualities. I also agree that Clayton shows us the ugliness and vanity of a society that becomes obsessed with beauty. But I do not think those “deeper questions” were adequately addressed. The story seems to be more about slavery and personal autonomy than about “gender equality and racial identity.” This is fine with me because I find these themes interesting. I’m just pointing out that they don’t match the publisher’s promise.
I feel like I’ve been hard on The Belles so perhaps I should mention again that the story is exciting and, despite my criticisms, I enjoyed it and am eager to read the sequel, The Everlasting Rose.
I’m listening to Blackstone Audio’s editions of the BELLES books. Rosie Jones does a lovely job with the narration.