Dhonielle Clayton (www.dhonielleclayton.com)
The people of Orléans are born with grey skin and red eyes, cursed – according to legend – by the God of Sky to eventual madness. In every generation a group of Belles are born, young women who have the power to change how people look and how they act. Trained from an early age, their sixteenth birthday sees them entering service to the Queen, earning big money granting the wishes of the world’s richest people. Camellia Beauregard is one such Belle. Named as the Queen’s favourite following the disgrace of her most beloved sister, Camille finds herself caught in the midst of a titanic struggle, the Queen and her comatose daughter on one side and the demanding Princess Sophia on the other, generations of rules and customs the only thing standing between her and exile or death.
It’s safe to say that Dhonielle Clayton’s latest novel, The Belles, is not my usual cup of tea, but there was something about the story outlined in the book’s blurb that drew me to it, and made me want to visit the world of Orléans. Clayton has created a beautiful, opulent world and peopled it with a cast of oddballs and eccentrics whose very lives are driven by the ideal of beauty, regardless of how deep, or otherwise, it may go. At the centre of the story is Camellia – Camille – Beauregard and her five Belle sisters, who we meet as they are introduced to society and given their assignments by the Queen. The coveted post, that of “favourite”, will eventually come to Camille, though she finds herself in one of the lowlier posts first, which gives Clayton the opportunity to tease us with half-glimpsed secrets that are obviously kept from the Belles as they grow up and train for this honour.
As the favourite, Camille finds herself in direct contact with Princess Sophia, a spoilt young woman whose actions ask the perennial question: in a world where beauty can be bought for any price, how does one stand out from everyone else? It soon becomes apparent that Sophia knows more of the Belles’ secrets than anyone is comfortable with, and a short hop from there to the realisation that she is completely unhinged. While Camille attempts to stay on the right side of the young princess, she discovers that the Queen is interested in more than just her ability to make people beautiful, asking of the young woman something that will not only put her life at risk, but will also go against everything that she has been taught.
Clayton’s creation is certainly attention-grabbing. It’s a fantasy novel with steampunkish notions and a distinctly dystopian feel. There’s a dark edge to the story, not only in the guise of Sophia and her madness, but also in the conceit at the story’s heart: the ability to buy beauty, and for beauty to be the defining feature of the inhabitants of this world. In a world where the laws concerning how one can look are more important than those governing one’s actions, the Belles are treated almost as gods, their continued existence the only thing keeping the world of Orléans going and, more importantly, the only thing allowing the haves to stand out from the have-nots. In the end, the moral of Clayton’s story is a simple – and obvious – one: true beauty lies not in how we look, but in how we treat those around us.
To say I’m pleasantly surprised by The Belles would be an understatement. There’s a lot more going on than the gaudy, girlish cover might suggest, a dark and substantial core at the story’s heart that takes the reader by surprise, and carries them onward. The first book in a proposed series, it spends much time on world-building and character development, promising much meatier fodder for future volumes. But there’s enough here to satisfy, and to ensure that the reader will come back for more. It’s worth a brief trip out of your comfort zone if for no other reason than Dhonielle Clayton has a way with words that verges on the magical. I’ll definitely be along for the next book in the series, and hope more people will look beyond the façade of The Belles to the engaging fairy tale that lies within.