I received a copy from Netgalley.
I read this book twice in a relatively short few months space of time and even after two reads I’m still unsure how I feel about it. This is one of those uber hyped books that I saw all over my Twitter feed and Goodreads. Needless to say it very high up on my highly anticipated reads.
So I was very excited when my review request was approved. Only to find that…I wasn’t blown away by it as I had hoped. There was something about the world building that made me very uncomfortable, and I didn’t particularly like the main character much. I found her annoying and childish, the villain cartoony and the barely there romance was completely unnecessary in my opinion.
I didn’t feel comfortable reviewing after the first time I read it since I couldn’t put enough thoughts together on whether or not I really liked the book or not. I did wind up buying a finished copy (cover love among reasons) and reading it again a few months later. It’s still taken me months later to finally put a review together.
The novel is set in a fictional kingdom where above all else beauty is the most prized thing in the world. There’s a really interesting origins story at the start of the novel explaining about the Goddess of Beauty and her spurned jealous husband and how the people of the kingdom came to be, and how they were all born grey and ugly. As a gift to the people the Goddess created Belles, who have the power to make people beautiful. Belles are born into each generation. They are revered and worshipped, when the Belles reach sixteen they are presented to society, and Royal Court. In each generation of Belles one is announced as a Favourite and she works at the Palace for the Royals.
In this generation, there are 6 Belles we meet on the eve of their presentation into Society. The heroine, Camellia yearns to be chosen as Favourite. It’s all very opulent and glamorous. The excitement is evident in the writing. One thing I really liked was how close all the Belle girls were, they were sisters who adored and loved each other – no obvious dislike or rivalry. They’ve grown up together, learned their gifts together, and support each other. There’s arguments of course, it’s not all harmonious, but the camaraderie between the girls was lovely.
Once the Belles make their debut, votes are cast and the Favourite is announced. Not the result anyone expected, the girls are sent to different Tea Houses where they will perform their services. Belle services are highly prized, and the girls live in extravagant luxury. However, there are very strict rules they must live by – one is they are not to be alone with a male outside of beauty appointments. They cannot fall in love. Yet in a brief moment of weakness when Camellia is caught alone – she finds herself talking to a handsome young man. Someone she finds herself meeting again and again at odd moments. Feelings start to develop.
I think it’s supposed to hint at Camellia’s curiosity – she’s never been alone with a boy before, there’s new emotions to explore. The banter between them is amusing, the boy, Auguste, is quick witted, handsome and appears intelligent. He’s bringing out new ideas in Camellia she’s never thought about. To this reader, it was eye rolling, annoying and unnecessary. She finds herself rather lose lipped about him as well. Things she’s not supposed to tell anyone have a strange habit of spilling past her lips before she can stop herself.
While the world building is certainly glamorous, rich and elegant, and with hints of some fancy technology mixing in with the fantasy setting there was something very uncomfortable about it, at least in my opinion. I just couldn’t get on board with a society that is just obsessed with looks. People go to Belles to get themselves beautified anyway they want – though there are trends and rules and endless amounts of Belle products to make the client’s beauty dream come true. Though it appears Belle treatments are not without pain. People don’t seem to care. Though I must admit – if I had the option of a Belle – hell, I would probably take it.
Camellia settles into her own new routine, she’s worked very hard. Though she learns things in the new tea house she’s assigned to. There’s secrets about the Belles from the generations before her, she hears strange crying in the night and no one will answer her questions. One thing I liked about Camellia was she didn’t take things at face value – she asks questions, she investigates when things are off and she doesn’t let things drop. She’s definitely strong willed and inquisitive. On the other hand though, she’s very rash and impulsive, also bull headed and stubborn. Normally impulsive and stubborn is a trait I admire in my heroines, but there were some of Camellia’s actions that just irritated the hell out of me and came across as childish more than anything. After all, she has lived a very sheltered life and probably doesn’t know how to control herself in certain situations.
Something else about the Belles also bothered me – even though they have the most sort after gifts in the kingdom, their power is beholden by everyone – even Royalty doesn’t have the magic the bells do. Yet the Belles are not…free. They live their lives according to the strict rules set out by others – they are not allowed to use their magic as they see fit. They are worked until they are exhausted. They don’t get to make their own choices in a lot of things. Services are bought and paid for. They may live in the lap of luxury but it seems to come at a price. And as the plot progresses, some of this seems to sink into Camellia. Is being a Belle really all it’s cracked up to be?
Things for Camellia change and she finds herself voted the new Favourite and shipped off to the palace to work for the Royal family – the Queen and her daughter, Princess Sophia. The Queen is getting ready to announce her Royal Heir – the oldest daughter – Princess Charlotte has been in a coma for several years. No one knows why and no one knows what causes it. Torn between the desire to be the best Favourite she can be and the burning questions about what happened to the previous Favourite, Camellia finds herself getting to grips with the pressures of living in the Palace. Princess Sophia appears to be rebellious and rule breaking – she can be very very generous – but she can be a viper.
There are more mysteries and the Queen has a special mission for Camellia regarding saving Princess Charlotte. Princess Sophia is to be announced as Heir if Charlotte can’t be woken, and no one wants Sophia as Queen – she’s manipulative and cruel to an almost cartoon villain level of giddy evilness, and her crowd of Ladies in Waiting and court friends are forced to go along with her, no matter how mean or awful. They are punished terribly if not.
Nothing is simple and there’s more mysteries to solve. And it doesn’t help matters when the truth about who Auguste really is comes to light as well. The more Camellia learns about Sophia the more horrified she becomes. The mystery of Princess Charlotte is begging to be solved as well – I certainly have my theories about that one! More questions, hardly any answered. And Camellia is not the only Belle who has been digging into things.
Things take a bad turn before the end. The plot is a little slow in the middle but picks up towards the end.
There’s also a really interesting author’s note about the end which explains a little bit about the inspiration behind the story and helped tremendously in making sense of the fact that the world building made me so uncomfortable. I understand a lot more now about the overall message behind the book.
I can’t say even after two reads I particularly liked this book, but I am very interested to see where this is going to go story wise. Camellia irritated me a lot throughout the book but she did show enough growth over all that I want to know what happens next.
Thank you to Netgalley and Orion Publishing Group for approving my request to view the title.