The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
Victor Gollancz Ltd
Everybody in Orléans has pallid grey skin and red eyes. Everyone except for the Bélles. They alone know the arcana of beauty, and it is their job to make the world a more beautiful place. The rich and influential will pay anything for one more treatment. Under the guidance of guardian Du Barry and her associates, the Bélles take up their positions at court or in the tea houses where the wealthy receive their treatments.
Every Bélle wants to be the Queen’s favourite, the one chosen to live at the royal palace and be responsible for the beauty of the royals and their courtiers. The current generation of Bélles is due to retire and Camellia and her sisters will replace them. Being the favourite is all Camellia has ever dreamed of, but it may come at a terrible cost. There are secrets everywhere. Secrets about the sleeping princess, and secrets kept by her little sister, who is determined to learn more about the arcana. There are secrets in the tea houses where the other Bélles work – voices crying in the night and secrets about the very existence of the Bélles themselves.
Can Camellia learn enough about what is going on before the Queen retires, and the world is forced to pay a terrible price?
Dystopian novels don’t have to be set in gritty urban warzones. The Bélles is set in a world which is, on the surface, as sugary and light as candyfloss. It is a world of the beauty carnivals and tea houses, tiny pets and dresses dreamt up by teenage beauty-queens. The contrast between the initial appearance and the darker political reality makes this a great book. Questions build as you read – what starts as a mild sense that something is out of place grows beneath the surface until it is apparent quite how much is not as it seems.
The Bélles are interesting characters. They can control the arcana – the magic of beauty – unlike everybody else in their world. You would think they held all the power, but where power exists there is a host of people ready to exploit it. Camellia and her sisters are also girls. Young, vulnerable and naïve, their hopes and ambitions change as they realise how out of their depth they are in the wider world.
The novel and the arcana raise some interesting questions. Is beauty about being alike or being unique? Should we measure against others, or against our natural selves? How greedy would we become if there was a power which could change our appearance, and how far would we go? How much pain would we endure? How might we behave towards others if we had this power under our control? This is one of the most frightening questions the book asks, and it sees Camellia in a terrible situation where one person commands her to harm the appearance of another. There is huge scope for conflict in this world and I was hooked to the pages as a result.
I love the diverse portrayal of beauty, and the descriptions which make these many types of beauty real – skin tones and eye movements and hair-care all described to include readers of every origin. The book does a brilliant job at diversity. Same-sex relationships are described in exactly the same way as hetrosexual ones, and female soliders and guards are referenced alongside male. Huge thumbs-up for a no-fuss approach to diversity. This isn’t an exploration of one ‘issue’ or another, but a portrayal of people and relationships in all their wonderful variety.
The afterword says this book was brewing for twenty years, and I think the result is the author writes about this unusual world as if she knows every corner of it. I can’t wait to hear what else Dhonielle Clayton has to say, and I recommend putting this high on your list for 2018.
Huge thanks to Stevie Finegan at Gollancz for sending an ARC. All opinions my own.