Book Review: The Belles

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3 out of 5 stars

Format: Library Hardback - YA fantasy - Goodreads summary:

"
Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.

But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision. 

With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.."

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: Well-written, beautiful (if not a tad overdone) descriptors, and an interesting fantasy world that felt a bit like Moulin Rouge meets a beauty pageant. It's been a few weeks since I read it, but I think I can offer a unique perspective on what sticks with the reader long after you pay your library late fee. Clayton's debut novel is unique, but the plot is simple and somewhat predictable. I love the sisterhood of the Belles, but I still had major issues. Read on to see my thoughts on Book 1 of The Belles!

***CAUTION: LITE SPOILERS AHEAD***

SETTING & BELIEVABILITY : If I had to sum it up in two words, it would be: unnecessary world-building. I enjoyed the descriptors and the lavish scenes, and the prologue did a great job setting us up for this fantasy New Orleans. But it took me longer than it should have to freaking figure out how mail was delivered... which brings me to: why does it matter? Why does it matter how people get letters? You could simply have them ride up on horseback, so Clayton's insistence that we "get it" (and spending several pages to do so), made it feel forced. And also like Hunger Games' silver parachutes. 

CHARACTERIZATION: I. love. friendships. Clayton did a great job busting out of some gender norms (all girls are catty, and all boys are cool and mysterious). There were equal number of sketchy girls and guys, balanced with heroic and kind girls and guys. That said, there was still a paper-doll-feel to most of the characters and their arcs which I hope Clayton expands upon in Book 2. 

Camellia: I liked her, and related to her most of the time, but even our main character suffered from a flat arc. Her goals change from wanting to be Belle #1, but I didn't feel much agency with Camellia. the world is happening around her and she's at the whim of all the other characters. I was REALLY hoping for a confrontation between Amber and Camellia where Amber finally explains herself. Or even a great scene between Camellia and her guard (can't even remember his name...). But she didn't really connect with anyone, and may be what keeps me from reading Part II of Camellia's story. 

Amber: Ugh. Typical mean girl with what I'm guessing is a THICK backstory. But we don't see it. Amber is as insufferable in the end as she was in the beginning. We all know those girls who claw their way to the top for no other reason than to be on top. So I totally got it. And then we think we see Amber change when her circumstances change. She's pulled from her high-horse and the reader is like "finally! a chance for growth." But then here's this horrific death scene in the end--like...it's bad, y'all--and we see that nope. Amber hasn't actually changed one fraction of a tiny bit and she doesn't even seem to care her ambition has caused someone's death. Like, zero remorse. So Amber's a psychopath. 

Edel: The only sane one in that whole bunch. Maybe it's because I really connected with her you-can't-tell-me-what-to-do mentality, but I loved her. She seemed to be the only one doing anything about the savage princess and the shallow outlook of the world they lived in. Too bad she was missing for most of the book.

Sophia: Don't even get me started on this piece of work! Props to Clayton for writing such an easily hated character. She was one of the most well-developed characters in the book. Though still a little one dimensional, her actions and reactions made sense for who she was, and made sense within the story. She's scary, y'all. You've been warned! 

But also can I mention that the 4 characters who felt "main cast" enough to talk about are all women? I love that! 

MAJOR BEEF: 
1. Queer character is killed for no purpose but shock and awe, and to further the main characters plot (see #4). 
2. Sexual assault scene that has zero outcome on the rest of the story, making it a plot device. I take major issue with using sexual assault (something 1 in 4 women experience in their lifetimes--many of whom are your readers) just to make your book interesting. 
3. Amber never explains herself and has ZERO growth. This makes it incredibly hard to be okay with the main characters making herself a doormat for the sake of rectifying their relationship. This could lead to an unhealthy message to young, female readers that it's okay to continue seeking approval and forgiveness from someone who has a history of wronging you. Healthy boundaries, people! 
4. "The Revolution Is Here" on the book cover. What revolution?
5. No agency for the main character: At the end of the book, we should see the main character making shit happen, but nope. Someone straight up dies...because a) Camilla is STILL doing someone's evil bidding out of fear, b) she's still doing the beauty changes that only Belles can do, but wait... isn't she supposed to be sticking it to the man and refusing to give into people's shallow whims of beauty and style? Wasn't this whole book about inner beauty? And c) the only reason we have the cliffhanger at the end is because someone else takes Camilla to her runaway sister-in-hiding. It's been a while since I read this, but looking back, I can't recall a single time the plot was influenced by Camilla's autonomous decision to act. 

STYLE & STORY: The writing is gorgeous! borderline purple prose, but I'll take it. I love some good flowery language every now and then. Everyone and everything is compared to food. In the beginning, this set a really fun scene and drew me in right away. By the 50% mark, I was wishing Clayton had other descriptors up her sleeve. She didn't. So while beautiful, it was a little overkill. Other than that, the dialogue felt natural, the settings unique, and the pace was on point. 

Book 1 felt a little lacking for me. I wanted this book to tell us more about the secret Belles (SO intriguing) and fill us in on what other powers the Belle's had. Who made them this way? Who governs which Belles are seen by the world and which ones don't? There was so much more Clayton could have shared with us. And I'm not saying an author shouldn't save some story for other books in the series, but the reader shouldn't sense that. We should still get a complete, satisfying story even in the first book of many.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Book 2 isn't slated for a pub date yet, but I honestly don't know how this can become a full series. The plot seems too simple and the characters too plateaued.

The author's note was really personal and such a cool message about her journey which brought her to this book. I think we were to take something away from it that I didn't. Maybe I wasn't reading it right. But ultimately, the message the author was trying to convey didn't come across strongly enough. In the end, it just didn't work for me. There's no doubt Clayton is a talented writer. If she came out with a new series, I would jump all over it.