Review: The Belles

The Belles (The Belles #1)The Belles
by Dhonielle Clayton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Belles / B071XNWRHC

I'd heard in advance this book was amazing, and even pre-ordered the Kindle version, so I was excited beyond words when the publisher sent me an ARC to read in advance. I meant to read it a little at a time (I'm trying to break my marathon-reading habits) but ended up devouring the entire book in a day. SO GOOD.

The people of this world are afflicted with a mysterious curse which drains them of color. But a few girls are born with color and a mysterious magical gift: they can provide beauty (any color! golden hair? sure! red-rose lips? on it! honey-brown eyes? here you go!), moderate moods and temperaments, and grant musical and artistic skill. These girls are called Belles and their entire purpose in life is to serve the people of Orleans and beat back the graying curse with constant vigilance in the form of beauty treatments.

...which are expensive.

...and very painful.

Camille, one of the latest batch of six graduating Belles, longs to show the people their inner beauty. She wants to *enhance* their loveliness and help them accept how wonderful they are. But life is about to take a sharp turn when she arrives at the capital and realizes that what the people *actually* want has nothing to do with natural beauty or self-acceptance and everything to do with a desperate scramble to the top of a treacherous and deadly social ladder.

If you liked HUNGER GAMES but wanted less running in the woods and more Capitol politics, clothing, beauty regimens, and rich people murdering each other--and President Snow as an evil princess with a miniature pet elephant--then you will like THE BELLES.

---Spoilers and Trigger Warnings--

THE BELLES plays beautifully with YA tropes before turning them on their head and exploring new and different directions. Spoilers herein: The "rival" positioned to oppose the main character is a sweet girl with mutual love and respect for the protagonist. They don't like being made to compete with one another, and they never stop loving each other. Amazing! Additionally, when the main character is set up at the beginning to win by being the best, she doesn't. I loved that! Instead, she goes off and toodles about as second-best. This is incidentally my favorite part of the book, because it turns into a Gothic mystery with locked doors and loud crying at night and servants lying to your face about the loud crying. (What sound? That must be the wind. Or a cat. Windy cat, yes. Go back to bed. Everything is fine.)

Another thing I loved: The author has put thought into how transgender people would use body-altering magic to transition in her world. I love-love-love when authors think about how we would interact with the world-building. In a newspaper announcement regarding the latest new 'beauty laws' (which are necessary to keep people from becoming thinner than the human frame can support, or shaping their noses too small to breathe properly), we read: "Queen changes law: allows boy to reveal true self and transform into a girl at maison rouge de la beaute." I put the book down and cried for happiness to see confirmation that trans people exist in this world and are accepted. I am additionally thrilled that while earlier versions of the ARC misgendered the girl in this announcement, trans readers contacted the author and she worked with them to make the final print better. How often does that happen? This is an excellent standard for authors to reach for.

Now for the trigger warnings.

[TW: Sexual Assault] There is a scene with attempted sexual assault in the context of a woman of color performing service work not dissimilar to professional massage on a man. This is a very common thing that happens in our world--the assault of service workers in situations like this, and particularly workers who are women of color--and the scene read as very real to me and appropriate for the book. But be aware that it is here.

[TW: Slavery, Captivity of Disfigured People] Over the course of the story, it is revealed that Belles used to be bought and sold as chained slaves. The scene in which the protagonist, a woman of color, studies pictures of her forebears in chains is raw and painful. Later we find that some Belles have facial or bodily disfigurements and are kept in secret captivity as a 'second class citizen' tier of Belles. The protagonist is appalled by their treatment and I think the series will focus on saving them, but this book ends with them still in bondage.

[TW: Queer Death] This world is one in which queerness is normalized--no one thinks it's scandalous to have a same-sex partner and there is mention of queer marriages--but the most visible queer people we see are a gay man who plays the role of Cinna here (there I go with my HUNGER GAMES comparisons again) and a sapphic couple. One member of the sapphic couple is killed by the villain in a moment which is meant to be a moral event horizon for showing how evil the villain is. In the context of the story I did not find this gratuitous, but others may; proceed with care. I hope we can see happy sapphic couples in the sequel.

[TW: Possible Bi/Pansexual Villain] Per above, queerness in the world is normalized, but we don't receive a lot of examples of queer people. The only person I noticed to have lovers of more than one gender is the villain. I don't feel the book implies that the villain is villainous *because* she is bi/pansexual, nor am I even sure she is *intended* to experience multi-gender attraction since her affairs seem more about power than attraction. However, I wanted to mention this as a trigger warning just in case.

Overall, I loved this book and will definitely be reading the sequel. Thank you!

NOTE: This review is based on a free Advance Review Copy of this book provided through NetGalley.

~ Ana Mardoll


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