Please help me. I am so conflicted about this book. So wonderful. So terrible. Three stars.

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.

Publisher synopsis via Goodreads

I guess it makes sense to begin with the good. I could make a strong choice that this is a major achievement in YA that deserves all the hype.

Book cover: The Belles

Clayton has created a gorgeous, seductive world. The setting is fresh and fantastic, drawing me in with the gowns and pasteries then twisting into a dark dystopia. This is a great example of how to do the “pretty dresses every chapter” style right. Sometimes, you just want to be swept away by beautiful descriptions of a beautiful world. Clayton has the style to pull that off.

Clayton put a lot of care into creating this world where beauty is prized but elusive. In a Goodreads Q&A, she points out the challenge presented by the fact that, “through European colonization and imperialism [Western] beauty standards have dominated and shaped what is beautiful throughout our world.” How, then, to create an ideal, French-inspired beauty standard in a fictional world untouched by imperialism?

She goes into more detail about this issue in her second interview on Sarah Enni’s podcast, First Draft, on which she discussed her effort to create an image of “ugly” without building it on real-world power dynamics or racial stereotypes. The result, a community of identically gray-skinned, red-eyed people with hair “the texture of straw,” is wonderfully gross and the perfect counterpoint to an ideal of diverse beauty.

The French edition. *heavy breathing*

Race-neutral beauty standards notwithstanding, it matters that Clayton chooses to foreground a girl of color as her protagonist, and that she was placed, glammed-up and face-out, on the cover. (And what a gorgeous cover it is!)

I love almost everything about the world. I love the magic. I love the teacup pets. I love the gowns and carriages and pastries and tiaras and sisterhood and the dark, violent edge. I wanted to live in it forever.

All that sounds an awful lot like a five-star book for me. It takes a lot to drag something I liked that much down to three… but this book did it. I’ll boil it down to three main reasons:

1 – World-building problems. I still have so many fundamental questions! How do people recognize each other if they change appearance all the time? How big is Orleans–aren’t there enormous numbers of gray-skinned peasants supporting this palace? Do other lands exist, and are they like this? How, exactly, are Belles “born?” These are real basic questions that I should have a handle on by halfway through!

2 – The actual plot. This is a nothing of a story in an amazing setting. It moves at a glacial pace, with almost nothing happening in the middle 70%. Unless you’re on the very young end of the YA audience spectrum and haven’t read much of anything before… you’re going to see almost all the major twists coming, especially the big ones. The romance is, as usual, superflous and thin.

3 – I’m marking this as a spoiler, but I’ll begin with a CW in case that’s all you want to know. Just highlight the first few words:

CW: Kill Your Gays trope. This was tremendously disappointing. Sexuality was handled very awkwardly throughout the book, and I could never get a handle on Orleans’ society’s views on it, so we weren’t starting from a great place. By my count, we have two on-page queer characters, but the handling is so fuzzy that I’m not sure that’s the right number. There’s certainly only one that is showing same-sex attraction on-page, and… you guessed it… she dies. Violently. While sobbing. For… you guessed it, no story reason, just to be shocking and add emotional weight. This book was published in 2018–why are we still doing this??

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So, all in all, I’m ambivalent here. I loved so much and I hated so much. The good news is that most of these problems could very well be gone in the sequel, so if I’m feeling some goodwill when I next see The Everlasting Rose, I might give it a shot. We’ll have to see.

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