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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.

BOOK SERIES REVIEW: The Graceling Trilogy by Kristin Cashore

I only really warmed up to the Graceling trilogy by Kristin Cashore with the second book, Fire (haha, get it? warmed up?) I’m so glad I stuck with it after my initial reservations because it just kept getting better and better. This is why all three books ended up with different ratings:

Graceling: Three star rating represented by three bumblebees (3 out of 5 Ramblebees)

Fire: Four star rating represented by four bumblebees (4 out of 5 Ramblebees)

Bitterblue: Five star rating represented by five bumblebees (5 out of 5 Ramblebees)

The overarching theme of the trilogy is young women finding their place in the world in the face of difficult choices, and reclaiming their kindness in adverse circumstances, both of which happen to be some of my favourite tropes.

The covers of Graceling, Fire, and Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Graceling is the first book in the trilogy. It tells the story of Lady Katsa, niece and executor to her tyrannical uncle, King Randa of the Midluns in the Seven Kingdoms. Marked as a graceling by her differently coloured eyes and graced with killing, she’s a threat to all who cross King Randa, until she decides to defy her uncle. She builds an underground organisation known as the Council which fights against the many abuses of power in the Seven Kingdoms. In the course of her work with the organisation, Katsa realises King Leck of Monsea is not all that he claims to be. As she races to rescue his ten-year-old daughter from his tyrannical clutches, she not only discovers new truths but new strengths as well.

Fire, the second book in the trilogy, is a prequel to Graceling. Set in a country East of the Seven Kingdoms, it tells the story of the Lady Fire, a so-called monster with colourful hair and the gift of reading and molding people’s thoughts. Her now dead monster father and abuser, once adviser to the king, has plunged the kingdom into upheaval with his taste for chaos. With civil war imminent, Fire has to decide whether or not to use her abilities without becoming like her father.

The third book, Bitterblue, picks up eight years after Graceling left off. The now eighteen-year-old Bitterblue is Queen of Monsea but feels like she has no knowledge about or control over her kingdom. Her advisers’ curious lies and evasions both about her father’s past reign and the present conditions in the kingdom lead her to investigate. With the support of Katsa and her Council friends, Bitterblue sets off in search of the truth and discovers that the wounds from her father’s reign she considered healed are more present than ever, and that it will be a long road towards recovery.

I enjoyed Graceling well enough, but it had a few flaws that nearly made me abandon the trilogy. The world-building was interesting and I liked the characters and their relationships with each other, especially the bond between Katsa and Bitterblue. However, plot-wise the book felt closer to a draft than a finished product. All of the important story elements were there, but they were rather loosely connected and didn’t quite knit together into a satisfying arc. The story could have benefitted from being stretched out a little, which would have made the plot twists less predictable.

I had gone into this book with high expectations because it had been recommended to me as great asexual representation several times, so I was a bit disappointed that the writing let down the great premise and characters. However, a friend assured me that I would enjoy the remaining books in the trilogy which led me to pick up Fire after all.

Fire still had some of the same weaknesses that Graceling did, but less markedly so. I again would have preferred a bit more stringency in pulling all the different story elements together, but the plot was overall coherent and satisfying. In spite of this, I found myself wishing time and time again that Fire had been the first book in the trilogy. I suspect that the author chose to publish the books out of chronological order so that the revelation of Leck’s grace would have more of an impact, but as mentioned above the twists in Graceling were predictable due to its slight incoherency. Only a couple of tweaks would have been necessary to publish the books in chronological order, which in my opinion would have worked in favour of coherency. Looking back while reading Fire, I appreciated Graceling a lot more, and I feel like I would have enjoyed it more if I had read Fire first.

The final book in the trilogy, Bitterblue, unequivocally blew me away. It picked up all the loose ends from the previous two books and combined them masterfully into a nail-biting finale. Cashore’s writing evolves wonderfully throughout the trilogy, and it was fascinating to see her real skills unfold and shine in this third book. The characters’ motivations were more implicit, which held me in suspense waiting for the myriad questions and inconsistencies to be resolved. Being fed the conclusion trickle by trickle was sweet agonising torture and I loved every bit of it. Bitterblue coming into her own as both a woman and a queen was exciting to watch. It was a bit different from both Katsa’s and Fire’s arcs considering that both of them had an inherent physical power that they needed to come to grips with, while Bitterblue had to consolidate and grow into a less tangible power, but the overarching theme was still very much present, tying all three of the books together.

I appreciated the fact that all three of the female main characters were allowed to be emotional and unreasonable at times without being labelled as hysterical. Emotional outbursts were treated as natural, and they didn’t result in the other characters respecting either Katsa, Fire, or Bitterblue any less.

In addition to her great treatment of women, Cashore also had a diverse cast of characters. Characters’ differing looks and complexions were described casually. There were a number of physically disabled characters. One important character and love interest loses his eyesight, another supporting character is without use of his legs and uses a wheelchair, and one of the main characters loses two fingers due to frostbite and has to relearn how to use her hand. Of course, there are also a whole slew of characters who suffer from trauma and related mental illness. A word of warning though: the circumstances that these characters’ trauma results from are brutal and upsetting, including emotional and physical abuse and even rape, so the trilogy might be triggering for some readers.

The queer representation was okay. Katsa can very easily be read as being on the asexual and aromantic spectrum, while Fire explicitly states her attraction to women and men. In spite of two out of three main characters being queer women though, all of the main relationships in the Graceling trilogy are M/F, which I found a bit disappointing. There are however two explicitly queer supporting couples, one of them F/F and one of them M/M.

Overall, I really ended up loving this trilogy, even though it didn’t start out as strong as it could have.