UK Publisher: Gollancz
Genre: YA, fantasy
I got a copy of this in advance from NetGalley and tore through it in less than a week. It’s a bright, engaging, easy read with a lot of style.
Set in Orléans, an archipelago where the people have been cursed to be born grey skinned, red-eyed and hideous. Only a handful of women are born beautiful – the Belles – and they are blessed with the ability to make everyone else beautiful, at least for a little while.
A steampunk styled society, with inspirations taken from Japanese and Chinese society – the Belles are reminiscent of the Geisha, highly trained women who are prized by the community, assigned to teahouses and hired by the great and the good to keep them looking gorgeous. People are obsessed with how they look, and compete to be on trend, to be featured in the fashion supplements. But it is not just their clothes and makeup – it is literally their full physical appearance. Skin colour, eye colour, height, body type, hair. Each overhaul is transitory, people reverting to grey, nondescript body types, so they are constantly refreshing and completely changing their appearance.
The Belles cater to this, using their ‘arcana’ to tweak and trim and restructure. Named for flowers, the book follows Camellia, who wants to be the ‘Favourite’, the palace’s dedicated Belle. But she doesn’t follow the rules, she is headstrong, and as a result is assigned instead to the capital city teahouse whilst her sister is named Favourite. She is devastated, until she is summoned to the palace and offered the chance to take over as Favourite.
Camellia is arrogant and a little selfish, overly ambitious; but also extremely naive. The Belles have been kept separate from society, and utterly sheltered. The book starts on their sixteenth birthdays, although it is easy to forget that, and I kept aging Camellia up in my head. This didn’t impact on the narrative, if you remind yourself that these girls have been kept isolated, with only themselves and other, older Belles, for company. Her development has been guided to keep her on message, to keep her from asking questions.
And that is because there is something Not Right about the situation in Orléans. The concept of changing how people look is a little sinister from the beginning, but Clayton does a wonderful job of mounting the tension and drawing it out, until by the end of the book things become actively horrific.
As a book, The Belles reminded me a lot of Wither, in the concept of a dystopic society where young girls are trapped for the purposes of people older than them, and not being entirely sure who to trust in your gilded cage – sisters, sister-wives, you are in the same boat, but are they friend or foe?
I feel The Belles did it better. Camellia makes a lot of mistakes, she is foolish and thoughtless because she honestly doesn’t understand the consequences. People come to her with outlandish beauty requests for fashion, she just wants people to have character, be themselves. There is more to explain why Camellia makes the choices she does, she doesn’t fully understand what is at stake. She is continually warned about danger, and ignores it because – why would she be in danger? She is continually told she is blessed, is powerful, is loved.
Which is why I am willing to forgive the agonising romance sideplot. I love romance, but I have mentioned previously that sometimes in YA the romance can feel a bit like “this is not the time or place”, particularly when the romance is actively putting them at risk. But Camellia doesn’t believe the risks are real because she doesn’t understand how they can be – it doesn’t fit with what she has been taught as a child, her sheltered, prescribed worldview. That’s why I called it agonising – because for the reader it is very clear from the start that there is something very sinister in place and Camellia is refusing to see it, so the romance is another aspect of her blinkers, and as a reader a very painful experience in dramatic irony. But combined with the increasingly sinister events around her it works very well, because even as you’re screaming for her to stop, you really, really want it to work out.
- A easy, enjoyable read, it has a real style to it. The imagery and sense of place and design to the story is lovely. There’s something very decadent and luxurious to the world, even as it is sinister.
- I really loved that the emphasis was on diversity – on how difference was beautiful. I loved that each Belle was emphatically a different ethnicity, and that all beauty was valued.
- Clayton wrote an author’s note at the end, which discussed how this book was a way to face her own demons. The criticism of the beauty industry and how that is perpetuated by the media is… very thinly veiled throughout the book. But these are demons I think most women will recognise, and for a YA novel I appreciate this message that perhaps beauty shouldn’t be dictated to us.
- The first of two books, the ending is… painful. Nothing is resolved, and things are Bad. It has left me desperately wanting the next one, so be prepared when you read it.
- I appreciated Camellia being allowed to be a flawed female character. She tries her best, but she is arrogant, a little selfish, and extremely unwilling to listen to reason. I recently read Mary Beard’s book, so after that it is nice to see girls being allowed to be imperfect.
Rating: 4/5 – it is hard to fairly judge this when it feels like just the first act of the story, but it was a book I struggled to put down, and I am excited for the next one.