In the kingdom of Orléans, beauty is power, and with enough money and access, you can change your look with the help of the Belles. The Belles are born with special powers to sculpt the people of Orléans, who are born “gris” – grey and shriveled – into normal-looking people, at the least, or with enough money, extraordinarily beautiful people. The book follows an ambitious Belle named Camellia as she outgrows her training and competes against the other Belles to be the Favorite, top beauty augmenter to the royal family and their court. When Camellia gets what she wants, she learns just how naïve she was. She’s required to keep the cruel, blood-thirsty Princess Sophia happy and is made to do dangerous, immoral things with her powers. Camellia struggles to balance her ambition with her conscience while fulfilling her duties. Mysteries around the retired Belles, illegitimate Belles, the disappearance of one of her “sister” Belles, and whether her powers can help the ever-sleeping Princess Charlotte, heir to the throne, occupy Camellia’s mind, as does her romance with one of the princess’s suitors. Palace intrigue deepens to a dramatic ending that will have you longing for sequel.
Two things stand out about this book: the world building and the social commentary. Orléans, made up of a collection of islands illustrated in a map on the end papers, has obvious French and at times Cajun influences. Each island is unique with its own industries, customs, and reputation in the kingdom. A seemingly omnipresent system of balloons does everything from delivering mail to taking photos and notes for journalists and the “tattler” gossip rags. As you can imagine, the world has a booming fashion and beauty industry with its own ever-changing trends and products that are described in lavish detail. There’s also some dark customs – leeches to clean the Belles’ blood, the abject pain of getting beauty work done, the use of blood in various contraptions to spy on others.
Though it takes place in a fictional dystopian society, The Belles has a lot to say about our own society – the premium put on beauty; the value of women and the work they do; economic stratification and classism; even animal cruelty. Gender fluidity and same-sex relationships are treated as a matter of course in Orléans. The queen has a female mistress, and a royal cousin trysts with her female servant, which is hidden for class, not gender, reasons. The race of characters is a funny thing when people have the ability to choose and change their skin color. Race is meaningless as skin color is based on personal preference and seems to carry no stigma. Kudos to the publisher for putting a woman of color on the cover.
The Belles mixes modern sensibilities with old fashioned imperial systems, magic with technology into a fresh and original book that stands out in the seemingly unending teen dystopian fantasy landscape.
More YA beauty books
Uglies series by Scott Westerfeld
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
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