2018’s The Belles is the first book in Dhonielle Clayton’s The Belles secondary-world fantasy series.
Orléans is a hermit monarchy, isolated from the rest of the world. The autocratic Queen Celeste Elisabeth the Third rules with a heavy hand: harsh penalties for the disobedient and lavish rewards for the faithful.
Camellia Beauregard is a Belle, gifted with the magical power to change bodies at will. Belles control beauty in appearance-obsessed Orléans and the Queen controls the Belles.
Sixteen-year-old Camellia, fresh out of training, is desperate to be named the Queen’s favourite. But she hasn’t been desperate enough to follow the rules set out for Belles and her sister Amber becomes the new favorite.
Camellia is bitterly disappointed. There are, as Camellia will soon learn, far worse things in Orléans than disappointment.
Assigned to the Chrysanthemum Teahouse, Camellia discovers that the reality of serving as a Belle not at as she had imagined it. There are mysterious screams in the night. She half-glimpses disfigured women sequestered in the Teahouse. She asks her superiors to explain, but no explanations are given.
Camellia is summoned to the court, where she learns that Amber has failed to please and has been removed as favourite. That role now falls to Camellia. She guesses that her new duty will be to serve Princess Sophia, the scandalous second daughter of the queen. She is looking forward to the role, as gossip and newspapers describe Sophia as deliciously unconventional.
Camellia soon realizes that Sophia is mad, bad, and dangerous to know, a spoiled sociopath who delights in punishing anyone who vexes her. As far as Sophia is concerned, rules are for little people. That includes rules against ordering Belles to use their powers to hurt and humiliate people.
Orléans is fortunate that Queen Celeste still reigns and that Sophia is not the royal heir. It is less fortunate in that Princess Charlotte, the heir, has fallen into a mysterious coma. The queen is old and ill; when she dies, Sophia is likely to be named regent for her older sister.
Celeste has few illusions where Sophia is concerned. Someone will have to do something about Sophia. That someone, Celeste proposes, should be the naïve Camellia.
Of course, Sophia may be mad, but that does not mean she cannot recognize a potential threat when she sees one. Or that she cannot take steps to neutralize her enemies.
This book ends on a cliff-hanger. Hmmmph. I also wish that it offered career options for lesbian characters aside from villainy or tragic death.
Queen Celeste has not forgotten the first rule of absolute monarchy, which is that there is no royal child so bad that they cannot be brought back into line by the application of a sturdy chamber pot to the back of the head as many times as it takes to remove the child from the line of succession. She has, however, neglected to entrust the job to someone with the right mindset. Are there no trustworthy huntsmen in the kingdom? No venerable purveyors of poisoned apples? No peckish dragons?
Belle magic may be used in service of fashion … but don’t make the error of thinking it’s not otherwise useful. Properly trained Belles can hurt, maim, even kill. The author makes it clear that the occupation is strictly regulated because the monarchy has learned the hard way that it must control the Belles.
YAs often involve young characters discovering that the world is far more horrible than they had imagined. Readers may wonder how it is that the protagonists remained so blissfully ignorant. In Camellia’s case, it is because Belles are kept in ignorance as a means of control.
Camellia the character is endearing in a manner familiar from many YA novels. The prose is a bit flowery but acceptable. So, a tolerable read. I don’t know where the series is headed, although I suspect that “reform and the creation of institutions needed for stable, responsible government” are not on the menu. They never are.