BOOK REVIEW: The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton (1 Star)

Cover of The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton, depicting a beautiful young black woman in a gown, with flowers decorating her afro

Rating: one (1 out of 5)

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.

The synopsis of this book is intriguing, but unfortunately it’s also the most exciting thing about it, along with the stunning cover. The premise is quite unique, even though it did remind me of The Lone City trilogy by Amy Ewing in some aspects.

Clayton’s world-building is disappointing. She introduces some fascinating concepts (the vivant dresses, steampunk-inspired knick-knacks such as the post-balloons), but fails to ever get into the nitty-gritty of how they work. There’s nothing wrong with painting with a broad brush, but the world-building of The Belles barely had any depth at all. The writing is bland, and the descriptions of opulent Orléans consist of superficial enumerations.

The characters were all rather one-dimensional. Clayton mostly fails to give her characters more than one defining trait, and their actions very clearly reflect whatever the author needed from them at any given moment. As a result, none of the characters ever fully come to life.

This extends to the main character, Camellia Beauregard, whose main aspiration is to become the royal favorite. Once that dream has been fulfilled, the author tries to provide Camellia with a few different motivations, but none of them are ever fleshed out and pursued in earnest. Camellia is supposed to carry the plot, but her flitting back and forth between opposite decisions only serves to frustrate. Equally irritating is her tendency not to question any inconsistencies about her very existence until the plot suddenly calls for it. After reading the synopsis, I was expecting a high-stakes fast-moving story, not the inconsistent mess that I got.

The romance in The Belles was extremely lackluster. There was no chemistry between Camellia and her love interest at all. What was intended as playful banter actually translated into pages upon pages of unengaging dialogue, even causing me to skip some parts just to get back to the plot. Overall, the dialogue was info-dumpy and lacking in flow, not to mention that Clayton is overly fond of the dialogue word “holler.”

I could have forgiven all of this as well as all of the little mistakes made in the French the author used. But Clayton made one mistake that I found truly unforgivable: she buried her gays. There were two queer women in The Belles, both in relationships with other women, and by the end of the book both of them were dead.

Additionally, another one of the characters is actually a trans woman, which at first I thought was amazing, until she, too, ended up in what could be a fatal situation. Her fate is unresolved at the end of the book, but I’m not holding my breath for the sequel.

I was originally going to give this two stars, but in writing my review I realised how much I actually disliked it. It’s a shame that what could have been a wonderful diverse book written by a woman of colour turned out to be such a disappointment.

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