I'm kind of conflicted about this one. There were so many things I really liked about this book, but also a lot that bothered me. Plus, as I got closer and closer to the end, I realized it was going to be a series and I hate that with a passion. I don't want to read series until all the books are written. Waiting two years to find out what happens next just doesn't work for me.
The Belles is set in a world where beauty is valued above all else. The Belles are valued because something in their blood allows them to work magic on people's appearances, giving them different skin tones, hair colour, eye colour and even adjusting figures to be rounder, curvier or slimmer. The magic doesn't last though, so people have to go back to the Belles over and over again to keep from fading into a gray nothingness.
The best of the Belles is kept at the Queen's court to maintain her own beauty and that of those around her. When Camellia finds herself at court, she discovers the demands on her magic, and on herself, are much greater than she expected. With the future of the entire nation in her hands, Camellia has a much bigger decision to deal with than whether to make the Princess a blonde or a brunette.
While I liked the world building in this book, I thought it was a little light on explantation and felt a lot like the Capital in The Hunger Games books. So much of the Belle's magic system was unexplained, as was the history of the beauty-worship. This wouldn't have been a problem if there had been more plot, but what plot there was unfolded quite slowly and things didn't get moving properly until the last 100 or so pages. By which time I'd already figured out there was no way to wrap this story up in a satiisfying way. Plus, I'd figured out one of the major twists in the story well before that too, so when it turned that way, it wasn't a surprise.
The writing was lovely with some startlingly beautiful descriptions. As would be expected in a story about beauty, dresses and decor and people are given lavish descriptions, but somewhere in there, a lot of the things specific to this world are left unexplained. There appears to be some unique technology in this world, but it is only mentioned and described without being properly explained in terms of how and why it works the way it does.
The same has to be said about the society's structure. The hierarchy of the Court was reasonably clear, but how things worked outside the palace walls was never clear to me. Given how valued the beauty treatments are in this world, I have to assume the poor and less fortunate do not have the means to make themselves look gorgeous and are therefore drab and gray? But this is never mentioned.
There is also a rather unnecessary love interest in the book. Given Belle's aren't allowed to marry or fall in love, giving Camellia a sort-of-suitor seems pointless. And given her total lack of interest in said suitor, it's unlikely he'd keep pursuing her other than for nefarious reasons. The world building around marriage and partnership is also not clearly developed. Comments made by other characters make it appear same-sex relationships are okay, and marriage between women is possible, but it this is something I picked up only in passing and it is not clear, even though there is an f/f relationship between one of the princess's courtiers and a servant. But I won't go into that here because it would end up being a spoiler...
Overall, my feelings about this book are mixed. I would recommend it, but not highly, and would warn anyone going in that it isn't fast-paced or particularly plot-focused. So if you're not into slow-moving, lightly-plotted novels, I'd give this one a miss...
But don't just trust my opinion. Here's the blurb:
Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.
But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.
With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.