BOOK REVIEW: The Belles

The Belles

Title: The Belles

Author: Dhonielle Clayton

Publisher: Gollancz

Published: 08/02/18

RRP: £10.99

I AM A BELLE. I CONTROL BEAUTY.

In the opulent world of Orléans, the people are born grey and damned, and only a Belle’s powers can make them beautiful. Camellia Beauregard wants to be the favourite Belle – the one chosen by the queen to tend to the royal family.

But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favourite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that her powers may be far greater – and far darker – than she ever imagined.

Dhonielle Clayton creates a rich, detailed, decadent world of excess and privilege, where beauty is not only skin-deep, but a complete mirage. Weaving deeper questions about the commodification of women’s bodies, gender equality, racial identity, and vanity with high-stakes action and incredible imagery, The Belles is the must-read epic of the season.

Beauty.

It is what this book is about and what this book is.

It is just filled full of such beautiful descriptive prose. For example:

The Orléans archipelago is a string of islands, stretching like a rose with a crooked stem out into the warm sea.

Perfect clever writing with so much meaning behind it.  We are able to at once wonderfully convey this technicolour doll house existence whilst also satirising it and criticising, but without reducing how amazing it is.

I could easily have just quoted the majority of the text in order to just talk about how much I adored Clayton’s wording. In fact, it actually caused me to have to take the book in small doses. Feeling as if I had gotten a sugar high if I read more than a couple of headaches.

It should not be thought Clayton is a writer who is all style and no substance. In fact it is very substantive. Using New Orleans as a mythology is a great choice for a science fiction/fantasy setting, it has a sense that is both retro and new. Like an afrofuturist steampunk carnival filled with back stabbing and intrigue.

Right from the opening we instantly establish otherness in a world of otherness. Saying that normal sixteen year olds might get a teacup elephant for their Birthday but not The Belles. But yet never feels that far from our reality.

For we see the obsession with a ridiculous standard of beauty with people trying to make their waists dangerously thin or attempting to make their skin unfeasibly pale. Things that are both expanded on here but all too real in our society.

We are helpfully guided through this by Camellia Beauregard who is a great heroine, giving a real human response to the situation but still firmly enmeshed in this world, bridging a gap that would have delayed a lot of our understanding in the hands of a less skilled writer. However, she is also flawed and it makes her all the more understandable.

One issue I had with this is that I do not feel the palace intrigue was as sharp as I would have wanted it to be. It does go to some really dark places which help to explore the horrible underside of the world. It may simply be because this is one of my favourite areas to read and so, after such a strong opening, I had elevated expectations.

This should not to be taken to suggest that I have at any time, found myself bored or unwilling to pick up the novel. It is a stunning debut and well worth the time of any fan of fantastical fiction.

 

Rating: 4/5

Reviewer: Kris Vyas-Myall

 

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