Dark and twisted, The Belles, while not a fairytale, certainly has the feel of one. Not just any fairytale, but specifically those famed Brothers Grimm tales - the ones where Cinderella gets her toes cut off, Snow White’s stepmother wants her murdered with her lungs and liver brought back as proof, where Pinocchio was hanged and left for dead after murdering his maker. There’s a dark, delicious undercurrent to Clayton’s beautiful world and gorgeous characters and I savored every minute.
The Belles centers around beauty and the often improperly placed high value that Orléans residents place on it. One can never be too beautiful, after all. In this twisted world, everyone is born grey with straw-like hair and red eyes, and the only people who can make them look any other way are Belles - powerful women born beautiful, with special blood that gives them the talents to transform those around them, or at least those who can afford it. Revered and coveted for their power, each Belle vies to be the favorite, the one who will work directly in the kingdom. Camellia Beauregard is one such Belle, whose only dream is to be the favorite, the best, the most beautiful just as her Maman was.
In this world, everything is measured by beauty and the majority of people aspire to be prettier, more beautiful, more handsome than everyone else and there are no limits to cost, with the exception of those who can’t afford it. Competition is the name of the game in this world with so many aspirations of beauty, but as the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that no matter how you look on the outside, no amount of beauty or elegance or manners can truly cover up the ugliness within. There are political machinations at play in this glittering world, betrayals aplenty, and dark and terrifying secrets underneath all the bei-powders and color pots. Cutthroat and competitive, The Belles explores what beauty truly means and the consequences of misplacing value on what society views as beauty. Even the romance can’t be taken at face value because once again, as with everything in this world, it’s only skin deep.
The best part of this novel is the diversity and inclusiveness - every shape and size, every color of the rainbow, LGBTQ characters, with positive representation throughout. This book has been high on my radar ever since it started making its rounds on social media - a fantasy in a market that’s already saturated with books and ideas and it’s immediately clear that Dhonielle Clayton is bringing something new and fresh to the table by offering not only a fresh perspective in terms of the message this book promises to convey, but also because the main character is someone that readers don’t see nearly enough in mainstream YA fantasy - a woman of color.
Diversity has long been a hot-button topic in the world of YA, with many, many of us championing the need for inclusion of characters other than white characters, and most importantly - PoC as MAIN characters. Young adult books are so incredibly important for teens and young adults because they give teens an opportunity to find themselves in a book, to finally see someone like them on the pages, and I’m thrilled that slowly, but surely, authors of color are finally getting the opportunities and the attention they should have been getting from the beginning in order to bring books to young adults that include the diversity we so badly need.
Highly recommended and I can’t wait to see what Clayton brings us in the next installment of this dark and twisted tale.
*I received a free copy courtesy of BookishFirst in exchange for my honest opinion.