Beauty with little substance: Dhonielle Clayton- The Belles

So far, my Hugo Awards reading has brought me a lot of joy. This is the first book (nominated for the Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Novel) that I’m not overly excited about. It was an entertaining book, overall, but there were a lot of things that simply didn’t work. At this point – having read three of the nominated 6 YA books – it’s at the bottom of my list.

by Dhonielle Clayton

Published by: Disney Press, 2018
eBook: 448 pages
Series: The Belles #1
My rating: 6/10

First sentence: The God of the Sky fell in love with the Goddess of Beauty after the world began.

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.

This was a strange reading experience. One the one hand, I have a number of problems with this book, the world-building, the set-up, the “twists”, and the characters. On the other hand, I can’t deny that I was well entertained. The only reason I picked this up is because it is currently nominated for a Lodestar Award (Not-a-Hugo) and I want to support this new-ish Hugo category as well as make a well-informed decision on how to vote.

The story is set in an alternate (or maybe future?) Orléans, ruled by queens officially, but really ruled by beauty. The underlying myth of this world is that some goddess or other did something stupid so now almost all people are born ugly. That means, they have pale grey skin and red eyes. The only exception are the Belles, girls not only gifted with otherworldy beauty, but also with magical blood that gives them the ability to turn others beautiful. Camille grows up as all Belles do. Learning how to use her magic, learning the rules of beauty – symmetry, colors that go well together, flattering clothing, etc. etc. She and her sisters compete in a competition to become the Favorite, the Belle who lives and works at the royal court.

Here, the first problems with world-building arose. The Belles are kept extremely secluded, aren’t allowed reading material that isn’t approved by their care takers, and generally don’t know anything about their world that doesn’t seem to come out of a Youtube make-up tutorial. I was willing to suspend my disbelief enough to say that these girls don’t know anything else, so of course they don’t question this way of life. But what about the rest of the world? The Queen is the official ruler of Orléans, but what exactly does she do? There are not even throwaway remarks about how the country works. I don’t need an academic paper on Orléan’s economy or social structure but if I’m put into a secondary world by an author, I’d like some idea of how it works. Alas, no such luck. The focus remains firmly on Camille and her beauty work.

This beauty work consists in taking appointments for the aristocracy and royalty, making them pretty with the Belles’ magic. Changing hair colors, getting rid of wrinkles, making a nose smaller, breasts bigger, hips wider… you get the idea. That is Camille’s job. It’s the exact same job all of her sisters have, regardless of their status (only one can be the Favorite, after all). While the descriptions of Camille’s beauty work were engaging and fun to read, I kept asking myself again and again what the point was. The entire story takes place within the confines of the palace or places only rich people can go, so everyone is beautiful. The poor can’t afford beauty work, so people’s looks are a clear status symbol. But nobody ever mentions living conditions, where people’s food comes from or what their jobs are.

As for the plot, it was definitely fun to read, but I saw the twists from miles away. The Belles’ secret is obvious very early on in the story and the other mystery becomes incredibly clear as you read along. So the moments that were probably meant to shock me fell flat. That doesn’t mean there weren’t some shocking scenes in this book – beauty work is painful for the person receiving it, and the more you change, the more it hurts. There were moments that made me cringe because while I thought the plot was weak, the writing is actually pretty good.

The ending makes clear that this was always meant to be the first book in a series. While some plot strings are resolved in a way, many others are left open. I don’t know if Dhonielle Clayton plans to open up this world in the second book or if the world-building as such will get better but I probably won’t continue this series. Camille was a nice character to follow but I wasn’t all that interested in the idea of the novel to begin with. Now that the execution of it didn’t impress me, I see no reason to read the second book.