Belles by Dhonielle Clayton feels more like a delicious pastry than a novel in the best way: rich, delectable, and easily devoured. The first taste of The Belles series, it follows many familiar YA plot points (royal conspiracies, fantastical powers, betrayal, romance) but sets itself apart with explosive description and the fresh fictional world of Orleans. Additionally, dark, genuinely surprising twists balance its near-overwhelming opulence, leaving the reader with a hefty appetite to unravel the rest of the story. The result of this is a reading experience that is both emotionally gripping, and a real treat.
Protagonist Camelia Beauregard is at the cusp of beginning life as a Belle, one of the few women in Orleans capable of making its citizens, who are born gray and repulsive, beautiful. With a touch of her hand she can make bristled hair smooth, change skin color, even alter a body’s shape. She, along with her fellow sisters, will soon decide what beauty looks like in the island nation. She has been training for this since the moment she was born.
However, when Camelia’s aspirations to become the Queen’s favored Belle meet the vicious reality of Orleans court, with its secrets, untrustworthy aristocrats, and complicated politics, Camelia finds herself in the middle of a dangerous conflict. With her sisters, she must uncover the true limits of her power and decide how to best keep the entire nation beautiful.
Clayton is a master of the senses and she fully commits to the vision and feel of the lavish Orleans court, from glimmering buildings to stunning individuals. I was especially impressed with her use of smell and taste, both of which tend to be neglected in traditional description unless eating is involved. The result of this is a near sensory overload for the reader, which mostly functions perfectly to mimic the characters’ own overwhelm but does at times distract from the story and actions at hand.
The story is interesting and fast-paced, with a fair amount of unexpected twists and likeable protagonists leading the reader through it. It’s classic YA Fantasy, which is far from a bad thing. However, it does seem like a missed opportunity that Clayton does not dig a little deeper into the premise of the world she’s created. I was hoping for a more complex conversation about what beauty is or a deeper look into how consumerism changes our beauty standards. Although the novel touches on these themes, they are never fully in focus. Hopefully in her next novels there will be a bit more introspection and analysis, especially given how important self-image is to young adult readers. Furthermore, an issue with the story is that it is clearly the setup for the next novels, with little to no complete character arcs and many questions left completely unanswered. The consequence of this is that Belles feels oddly incomplete by itself. Therefore, I would recommend this only to those who are ready to commit to a full series and would even suggest waiting to read Belles until its sequel is published.
Belles is a delightful, delicious read as vibrant as a summer day. It is perfect for lovers of YA fantasy and those wanting to escape into a phenomenally crafted world. However, for those hoping for a richer discussion or metaphorical use of this world, I would refrain from reading until we see how the rest of series plays out.
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