Wednesday, November 22, 2017

The Belles

Camellia Beauregarde and all of her sisters are Belles, who have the power to make people beautiful. They rise to power as the previous generation retires to provide services to the rich and powerful. She desires above all else to be the Favorite, the most famous Belle that will live at the palace to serve the royal family. When the time to show off her skill comes, Camellia completely ignores instructions to partly to deal with a difficult situation and partly to put her above the other girls. Her plan backfires and she's named second to her sister. Crushed and overwhelmed by her demanding career, she works at a prestigious place until her sister is ousted as Favorite. Camellia is thrilled, but this world of beauty isn't as frivolous as it looks.

I honestly wasn't expecting a lot from The Belles. The world is rife with gowns, beauty, and luxury, but it has a science fiction premise and a dark, horrific underbelly. The people of this world are born with grey skin, red eyes, and straw-like hair, known as Gris. The Belles and their power are the only way they can look what they would call beautiful. Skin and hair color change with the fashion trends, the same as colors or cuts of clothing for us. The society seen in the majority of the novel is the upper class because they are the only people who can pay for Belle services. Their concerns are largely superficial especially when worth is measured by beauty. I am interested in seeing how the poor live. The only glimpse seen of them is in the little girls changed during the Belle debut demonstration where one of the girls isn't shy about condemning the beauty treatment as useless to her situation.

The Belle mythology and treatment by the public are at odds. The people are polytheistic and believe that the Belles inherited their power from the goddess of beauty. Their power includes the ability to change others' appearance (from hair color to their size to bone structure) and emotions. As children, the Belles are separated from the outside world to grow up and hone their skills without their parents. As adults, they are forced to provide their service no matter how the rebel or resist. Edelweiss in particular hates being a Belle and purposefully fails and offends whenever possible. They aren’t allowed to marry or have romantic relationships. Men aren’t even allowed to be alone with them. The Belles are revered and coveted in public, objectified and exploited behind closed doors.

Camellia experienced the realistic fatigue of working a demanding full time job. She is supposed to be guided by a seasoned Belle to learn the clients’ preferences and the ins and outs of the house. This doesn’t actually happen, leaving her to sink or swim on her own, which feels pretty realistic to how jobs usually go. Changing one’s appearance is a painful often disgusting endeavor with an opiate tea needed to sit through the procedure. She is understandably distressed when unwilling, screaming children are subject to her treatment (while their parent cruelly derides their appearance) and adults who refuse to recognize their own limitations. These rare encounters can be horrific, but the real horror comes in the wailing each Belle hears every night and the cruel, demanding princess. This adds and horror and mystery element that surprised and delighted me.

The Belles is a well built world that feels different than others of its genre. I enjoyed the story, but the ending fell apart a bit. The main villain is too flat compared to the other nuanced characters and her exploits went way too extreme. It went into ridiculous territory for me. The Belle powers also aren’t completely defined until convenient to the plot, which felt messy and unplanned. Other than that, this novel is a look into a unique world with a horrific underbelly. I am interested to see where the next book goes.

My rating: 3.5/5 fishmuffins

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