BWW Review: THE BELLES by Dhonielle Clayton
"I identify all the smaller pigments--the rich browns and tans and whites--that help make the hue bright and uniform. Maman used to make me tell her all the pigments that made up the deep red of an apple, or the brown of a peanut. It was her nightly test for me while I was studying skin transformations. While the other mothers forced my sisters to trace their cursive letters, I worked on shades and spectrums. The core of beauty is color, Maman used to remind me when I complained about her exercises.."
~Camellia, THE BELLES
THE BELLES is one of the most original novels I've read in quite a while. It unveils the ugly side of society and holds a mirror up to today's society and biases in the process. The Belles are "the descendants of the Goddess of Beauty, blessed with the arcana to enhance the world and rescue the people of Orléans." They can alter the way a person looks, from skin tone to hair color to height and weight, to the shape of one's nose or lips or even the amount of freckles they have. The people of Orléans hate the way they look and always strive to be more beautiful. There is a curse on them and they revert to the way they were born once a month. We learn about this curse before the book even begins:
The God of the Sky fell in love with the Goddess of Beauty after the world began. Sky showered Beauty with gifts of his loveliest objects--the sun, the moon, the clouds, the stars. She accepted his offer to be his wife, and together they had the children of Orléans. But Beauty loved her new children so much, she spent all her time with them. After she refused to return home, Sky sent rain and lightning and wind to drown the first humans. When Beauty protected the people from harm, Sky cursed them with 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. In return, Beauty sent the Belles to be roses growing out of the dark and ravaged soil, destined to bring beauty back to the damned world, as the sun brings light.
(pg. vii, UK e-ARC edition)
The people of Orléans revert back frequently, and must visit the Belles at the various imperial teahouses in which they are employed to maintain their looks. The Belles can even alter a person's demeanor to make them kinder. Likewise, if they choose, they can make a person "ugly" just as easily as they can "beautiful." Camellia and her sisters have been prepping for their turn to help Orléans their entire life. They each covet the role of Favorite, the Belle who transforms the royal family. Camellia thinks her time serving as a Belle will be perfect, but she has no clue what darkness is lying in wait for her and her sisters...
First, let's talk about the society! The citizens of Orléans remind me of the citizens of District One in THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins with how wild and elaborate their looks can be, and how extravagantly they spend their money on such things. Everyone is shining and sparkling and unique. But the price to look this way is so much higher than money. There is a lot of pain involved and the process is not a delicate one. Plus, you are trusting yourself fully to another human. What if they don't transform you as you wish? And what does it cost the Belles to use so much of their gift to constantly transform so many people? As the book progresses, Clayton digs deeper and explores what it means to be beautiful and the emphasis society places on it.
One of my favorite things about THE BELLES is the way Clayton describes everything. Her words are wrapped in cotton and sweetness and are so visual. Maybe it's in part due to the pastel hues of the cover, but I see so much of that color in her words as well. Just look at the opening hook I posted earlier, he way Camellia talks in terms of food and color. Then the way Clayton uses visual sentences such as "My fingertips leave fog teardrops on the paper-thin glass walls." These descriptions and sentences are peppered throughout the novel and are gorgeous to read and visualize. I really adored her writing style!
At first, I wasn't sure what direction the novel would take. Was this going to be dystopian? I hadn't been expecting that and wasn't in the reading mood for that. So that expectation tainted the beginning of my read in that sense just because I wasn't in the right frame of mind. But I continued to love the world and be intrigued by what was going on, and I'm so glad the book opened into a direction more reminiscent of THE SIN EATER'S DAUGHTER by Melinda Salisbury or THE RED QUEEN by Victoria Aveyard or AN EMBER IN THE ASHES by Sabaa Tahir, where so much of the world lies on the back of royalty in a way that can be deadly or dangerous for the main character. I loved that it went this direction and opened up THE BELLES in new directions. I'm already eager to read the sequel and see where Clayton takes us next! (I'm also highly intrigued by the fact that the US Imprint is Freeform, leading me to wonder if it is similar to Alloy and will lead us to a future TV series!)
THE BELLES definitely lives up to its hype and is one to pick up as soon as it arrives in bookstores this week!