I am a Belle. I control Beauty.
In the opulent world of Orléans, the people are born grey and damned, and only a Belle’s powers can make them beautiful.
Camellia Beauregard wants to be the favourite Belle – the one chosen by the queen to tend to the royal family.
But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favourite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that her powers may be far greater – and far darker – than she ever imagined.
When the queen asks Camellia to break the rules she lives by to save the ailing princess, she faces an impossible decision: protect herself and the way of the Belles, or risk her own life, and change the world forever.
Warnings: body image issues, sexual assault, slavery
In the world of Orléans, a unique mythological setting has the people reliant on the Belles, girls who are exempt from the curse of the Sky God (think Zeus-level terrible), to maintain a beautiful appearance. This is a plastic-surgery-gone-wild kind of world, where people will pay regularly to not only be cursed, but also be hooked on the concept of beauty. Just imagine the current beauty standards and make that times hundred, and that’s how the world is. Naturally, the Belles are highly sought after and Camille, from the newest generation of Belles, wants to the best and most sought after, aka, the favorite of the royal family.
There are many disturbing facets in the story, like the way the people ask the Belles to manipulate their natural shape and color (well, considering they are all born grey, it’s more like getting color), and even their temperament. The Belles control every facet of beauty but their power is still under the control of the royal family. Camille, who replaces her own sister as the favorite, at first is carried away by the glitz and glamor of the court, and practically forgets the tiny weird things that happened when she was first assigned to a secondary teahouse. But things in the court continue to get shadier, the people continue to get more controlling, and there is a tyrant waiting to take the throne that would probably bully even Caligula.
The world-building is a little steampunk-ish, with these messenger balloons, and telephone-like devices, arcana-meters, and their various cosmetic concoctions, but also firmly in magic and myth, with the existence of arcana itself. I am interested in how it ties in with what was revealed about the Belles in the end, and how the system itself came into place. And while most of this story takes place in a palace with every luxury available, I am also eager to find out how the regular folk live (is it like pre-Revolution France?).
Camille, as a protagonist, was not my favorite. She is naive, yes, but it is also that she is too naive. She is not aware of what is going on most of the time, and she forgets things very easily. I don’t know if it was for plot convenience, because her being a bit of an airhead is why things build up to that desperate level by the end. She ignores the weird ongoings in the teahouse when she gets to the palace, and doesn’t do much questioning about it besides sending some letters to her other sisters (who, presumably, wouldn’t have much more knowledge about it, only notes to share). When the Queen asks her decision about something and tells her she has eight days, she doesn’t dwell much on it, and is instead focused on a charming suitor (who was *Shady* from his first scene) of the princess. The Queen, for her part, doesn’t show much urgency either, like she reschedules a meeting with her (about Camille’s decision) like one day before things needed to be resolved! That had me so frustrated, because I don’t like plot convenience to drive a story like this.
About the other characters – I loved the complicated sibling love-rivalry going on, and how it affected the relationship between the characters. I also liked Bree very much, and hoped she had a bigger part (like say, the other love interest?) to play. Sophia was a terrifying villain and will drive you to rage, for sure. But her unchecked power also made me a bit skeptical about the plot, since she is basically only a second princess who very much has motives and yet flies under the radar. Even when Camille was trying to think the best of her (why are you so guileless, Camille) I was like, how can you not see what is in front of you?!
Lastly, a weird quirk I did not understand was describing so much with food. Like skin color described with the textures of pastries or such, which was making me very hungry, ya’ll. And I also felt like it was trying to make different arcs – like the thread about the other unofficial Belles, or the escaped Edel, or the ‘creation’ of the Belles (I totally called that one!) – but didn’t really try to resolve anything in this first book properly. I understand there is a sequel but this barely felt like a complete story, you know!
Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Gollancz, via Netgalley.
Is it diverse?
The main character is a WOC. Camille herself tries to project a message of positive body image, and the Belles consider all shapes, sizes and colors to be beautiful.
There are two side f/f couples, but both of them have one partner dying by the end.