I really did enjoy the first book in "The Belles" series. I have not previously read a book by Dhonielle Clayton before, but will be on the lookout for the next book in this series, as well as any other works out there she has. She does a great job of blending fantasy elements along with mythology and fairy tales we already know (Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Persephone, Venus) and molding it into something new for the fictional world of Orleans where the action takes place.
Told in the first person, we follow a Belle named Camellia and the rest of her "sisters" when they are presented before the court. They wait for the Queen to name one of them favorite, with the remaining girls being sent out to tea houses in order to give beauty to the fellow inhabitants of Orleans.
When Camellia is not named favorite, she is taken to a tea house to perform beauty treatments. When something happens that causes her sister Amber to fall out of favor, Camellia is back in court, doing whatever she can to be loved by the Queen and Princess Sophia.
I think some readers may get a bit tired of Camellia though. She's so focused on being the favorite and the best she pretty much ignores how badly Princess Sophia is and doesn't even realize that a love interest (that I did call not being on the up and up) was not really into her at all. Thank goodness there is no dreaded love triangle though. One of my least favorite things in young adult books.
Though Camellia is naive, you do get to see her start to question what is the purpose of the Belles and realizing that all that glitters is not gold. You have young women who are slaves. Yes they are dressed up and bathed, and perfumed, but they are not allowed to say no. They are merely there to make others beautiful and be used up and tossed away. Even though the Queen has a good reason for having Camellia help her, she doesn't really care when Camellia is attacked by a prince and almost raped.
The other characters you get a glimpse of though Clayton does spend more time on developing some of the secondary characters like Amber, Edel, and Remy. Hopefully in the next book they get even more fleshed out.
I really did enjoy the writing. The world-building is not explicit in this one, but I think if you have read Greek myths and are familiar with fairy tales like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty you can see echoes of that in Clayton's writing.
Some of the descriptions of what happens when Camellia is using the arcana made my stomach hurt. It's unnerving and gross to read how many women and men go through significant pain in order to be beautiful. And ultimately that is what Clayton is attacking in her works. You read time and time again how attractive many of the young girls, women, and men are that come out and seek beauty, but they don't see it. Instead they keep demanding more and more to be done to them to make them truly beautiful. Princess Sophia is the worst and I started calling her Snow White's Wicked Stepmother after a while. She's obsessed with being the most beautiful (fairest) and she's going to do whatever it takes to stay on top.
The flow was a little uneven in the beginning, but gets better the further along you get into the book. The chapters were fairly short so that keeps the story moving. I do want to have more details provided in the next book about the Belles and their creation. There's enough there to tease you with while reading, and I don't need or want an info-dump, but I hope that now that Camellia and others are out in the world, they can find out the truth.
I will give kudos to the cover and the illustrations in the book. Since I got this as a hardback copy via the library I was able to see the chapter headings and loved the illustration that was at the top. The book also contains illustrations of the world of Orleans and locations that are mentioned like "The Fire Isles, The Silk Isles, etc. It's always fun for me to see how books go beyond just the written word.
The ending I thought worked. Clayton does a good job with ending the arc in this first book and now we are going forward with another arc it seems with the Belles fighting back.