TITLE: The Belles
AUTHOR: Dhonielle Clayton
SERIES: The Belles
RELEASED: February 2018; Disney-Hyperion
KEY INFO: Commodification of women’s bodies, magic, beauty, court politics, secrets and danger
REPRESENTATION: women of colour (MC and side), f/f (side), body sizes
CONTENT WARNINGS: discussions of fatphobia, slavery, death of a queer character, emotional abuse and intimidation
Don’t you want to be beautiful?…
Let me just start off by saying that I really loved The Belles. It was actually so good that it’s been difficult to write this review as I don’t even know how to begin to unpack everything in this beautiful novel from Dhonielle Clayton, not to mention enough space to yell about the gorgeous cover. The fantastical world that Dhonielle Clayton has created is wickedly divine, the characters are compelling, and the story is complex and multi-layered with powerful messages about the commodification of women’s bodies. As one reviewer put it, “The Belles is a monster hidden behind a pretty facade of dresses, magic, and beautiful writing.”
The world that Dhonielle Clayton has woven together is gorgeously described throughout The Belles. Seen through the eyes of our Belle protagonist, Camellia, Clayton strips away the sickeningly sweet exterior of Orléans to discover the rotten, festering society that lies underneath. This is a poignant tale about the inescapable pressure on women to possess everlasting beauty and the severe punishment faced by those who don’t live up to those expectations.
Orléansean society is seemingly divided between the gris, the normal citizens of the world who were cursed by the God of the Sky with straw-like hair and grey skin, and the Belles, the select few girls who were blessed by the Goddess of Beauty with arcana to make the gris (temporarily) beautiful again. Each year Orléans comes together to witness a grand ceremony called by the Queen and King where the Belles must show their worth by transforming a gris girl from a sallow, grey-skinned child into the most beautiful doll to compete to become the kingdom’s next favourite. The favourite will be allowed to live at court, attending to the royal families beauty needs, setting the fashion trends for the next year, and performing show-stopping makeovers on aristocrats. But the life of the favourite isn’t all it seems. Crawling under its glamorous surface are vulgar, scandalous and downright dangerous secrets which could tear the kingdom and all its citizens apart.
There are so many well-written characters in the Belles for you to love and hate! Camellia, our female protagonist of colour, is a charming yet realistic character who we follow throughout the novel. Ambitious, loving, and naive, Camellia must learn to quickly adapt to the cunning underhanded dangers of the royal court if she is going to not only survive but save the lives of her many sisters and the rest of the Orléans. The Belles are a fun and diverse range of sisters each with their own unique personalities and looks; rebellious Edelweiss who wants to tear the entire world apart, delicate doll-like Hana who just wants everyone to be friends, lazy Valeria who always seems to be asleep, perfect Ambrose who wants nothing more than to be the favourite even if it means stepping on her sisters to get there. It was really nice to be able to explore some of the diversity within Orléans, even just through the Belles all of whom have different skin colours, hair types, and body shapes.
Surrounding the Belles is a cabinet of colourful characters including the wonderfully charming Auguste Fabry who seems intent on dragging Camellia into all kinds of mischief, immature and wild Princess Sophia who everyone is hoping will get her act together, the attractive and comforting Rémy who is doomed to following Camellia everywhere whilst she winds him up, and the ever-fabulous Minister of Fashion with his crew of Dandies (not unlike Ru Paul’s Pit Crew!) All the side characters are fleshed out with intriguing backstories and more hidden motives than you can shake a stick at.
I just wanted to briefly address some of the controversies that I have seen surrounding the Belles, even before it’s publication, all of which are my own opinions from my own perspective.
- Queerphobia – I have seen a fair few criticisms of Queerphobia against The Belles, particularly aimed at the use of the word ‘Dandy’ and the death of an f/f romance character. I personally do not feel that the Belles is queerphobic. In the instance of the criticisms aimed at the fact that the Minister of Fashions is accompanied everywhere by his crew of Dandies, the term Dandy has historically been used to refer to men who place importance upon his appearance, leisurely hobbies, and refined language. Lastly, I’ve seen a few readers refuse to read The Belles based on a queer death which is used to further a particular plot twist. Obviously, queer deaths as plot tools are not okay and it’s incredibly frustrating to see The Belles fall into this trap. However, it was not something that affected me personally and I felt that there were other instances of same-gender relationships and queer people throughout the book to offset this.
- Fatphobia – As previously mentioned, The Belles is about the commodification of women’s bodies including the inescapable pressure and control which is exerted over their bodies. The Belles deals with sensitive issues such as facial disfigurements and weight in a way which I felt was tactfully done. Through her characters, Dhonielle strongly emphasizes that negative attitudes towards physical diversity is wrong, particularly through the voice of Camellia who frequently encourages people to be happy in their bodies rather than seek weight-related treatments.
- Albinism – Lastly, I’ve seen some negative backlash surrounding the gris in The Belles. Let me just clarify that the gris are not albino. They do not have pale skin, hair and eyes nor do they have any of the symptoms of people with albinism. The gris have grey-skin and are supposed to be completely devoid of colour. That does not make them albino.
The Belles is a wonderful read which is full of diversity, love-to-hate and love-to-love characters and is beautifully written. It is the first installment in The Belles series, so do not go into this book thinking it’s a standalone because you will get thumped over the head with the cunning cliff-hangar that Clayton leaves you with. I can’t wait to see what Dhonielle Clayton brings us next or how I will survive an entire year before the next installment!