REVIEW: The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

Length: 448 pages

Release date: 6 February 2018

Amazon UK | Amazon US

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Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.

But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.

With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.

“I adjust the eyescope lens, zooming in on excited onlookers, noticing how some of their skin tones have faded, like paintings that have faced the sun too long; how their hair is greying at the roots, and age-lines are creasing several brows.

It’s a reminder of why I’m here.

I am a Belle.

I control beauty.”

I’ve never enjoyed candy. I find most of it too sweet, too cloying, and the artificially dyed colours a tad too jarring to actually put in my mouth and swallow. It’s the same with a lot of overly sugary pastries and cake, especially where icing’s concerned. They’re nice to look at, but to actually eat that pile of sugar and food colouring? I’ll pass.

Reading The Belles feels a lot like forcing down one of those cakes–not just a slice, but the whole thing. The sheer decadence of the lavish, pastel-bright environment is intentionally excessive, blinding you with the glamorous as much as it blinds the main character. Basically, it’s sensory overload, just as the author intended. And that, above anything else, is done perfectly.

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It’s like the Capitol, but worse.

I had to get that beautiful, garish extravagance out of the way first, because it’s honestly my biggest impression of The Belles. As disgusting as it is to read what’s essentially Orléansian royalty partake in their version of bread and circuses while the Gris (read: peasants) starve, don’t get me wrong, I’ll recognise the atmosphere as the best part of the book any day. This isn’t my issue with The Belles at all.

My actual issue, the reason I didn’t love this as much as I wanted to, is the lack of substance underneath all the glitz. For sure, the story is pretty gory and over the top–think the worst of retail horror stories if the customers were the aristocrats of King’s Landing. Of course, every King’s Landing has to have its Joffrey, and I’m alternately pleased and horrified to say that Princess Sophia more than steps up to the game. She’s pretty cunning, evil, sadistic, you name it, and would be a great villain…for the next instalment.

Because for all the talk of danger, secrets and dangerous secrets, not much actually happens in The Belles. The pace is too slow for my liking. Other readers may well enjoy the leisurely immersion into a world that shines on the outside but takes its time revealing a rotten core; as it happened, I was expecting the rot all along and spent a lot of time just waiting for something else to happen.

Instead of palace intrigue and manoeuvring and schemes, we get only glimpses every now and then of lurking secrets, which Clayton frustratingly teases but doesn’t bring to light. Rather, the rest of the considerable length is padded out with, wait for it, vapid gossip, tabloid headlines, two awkward, facepalm-inducing attempts at romances and hundreds of descriptions of every kind of makeup, dress, hairstyle, skin colour, facial structure and eye shape you can imagine.

These things are fine. These things are even necessary to the story that The Belles wants to tell. But these things have to be used in moderation, and while I was reading, it seemed as if these details were simply overdone at every turn. They blot out “real” plot to such an extent that the premise of the synopsis, the queen asking Camellia to heal her daughter, doesn’t even happen until two-thirds of the way in.

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I’ll never understand books where the mission described by the premise is either a) entirely resolved in the first half or b) doesn’t come into play until the second half.

Looking at personal preference, and I say that because I’m completely aware this is a subjective point, I find Camellia a bit too naive for my tastes. She reads like a spunky romance novel heroine, lots of talk but doesn’t act smart enough to back it up. I had the same issue with the protagonist of Daughter of the Burning City as Camellia, so if you hated Sorina, Camellia might not be for you either.

That said, Edel has a place amongst my favourite minor characters ever. Fortunately, it looks like she’ll appear more prominently in the sequel. I do have high hopes for Book Two. So many threads are begun in The Belles and not resolved or followed up on, which while may be disappointing initially, provides a lot of potential for the future. Hopefully, this will be one of those series that improves as it goes on.

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