Review: The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

 

Initial reaction: I was going to bump this up to about a 2.5 star rating, but I’m just going to leave it at 2 stars. I had too many issues with this book in retrospect and I’ll meditate on my thoughts a bit before I write this review. Seems like I’m in the minority for reaction on this one, but hopefully once I have my thoughts together, I can talk about what went wrong.

I’m not sure if I’ll pick up the next book in this series yet, but I might try one of the author’s other books.

Full review:

Dangnabit, I wanted to like this book. It has such a kick-awesome cover too.

Admittedly, I think the experience with my first read from Dhonielle Clayton was a shaky one from the beginning. I begrudgingly admit that even before the book descended into the dumpster fire drama that was the last 100 some pages (more on that in a little bit). I struggled to connect with Camellia as she navigates a historical dystopian French-society inspired realm where debutants with “arcana” abilities are able to shape and satisfy the physical beauty obsessions of the societal elite. The “Belles” compete to become the “Favorite” among the royal court of Orleans. The worldbuilding was a bit wonky to follow, but I was invested enough to see where it went.

The writing in this book is a double edged sword. It has moments of immersion and character investment, but it takes so long getting to where it needs to go for plot movement that I definitely felt the weight of waiting for the next shoe to drop. Also, am I the only one who felt like the larger beats of conflict in this novel were obvious and…really forced?

Case in point: (I’m paraphrasing this in the most ridiculous way, but this is precisely how it came across to me in the novel.)

Character 1: Dude, this leading character is bad news. You need to stay away from her.
Main character: Oh rly? Why?
Character 1: Well, she did X,Y, and Z to this other character before you, and everyone in the kingdom knows she’s bad news because she’s really cruel…
Main character Oh la la, I don’t wanna hear it, so I’m just gonna walk out of the room now…
Rose’s reaction: WHAT ARE YOU DOING? SHE’S TELLING YOU THAT THIS OTHER CHARACTER IS BAD NEWS. LISTEN TO HER.

*several pages later*

Character 2: I’m really concerned about this character who has the same anger issues I had when I was younger ascending to power. I have a plan to stop her, but I need your help…
Main character: Yeah, that might be true, but I don’t really wanna do your plan because I might die in the process?
Rose’s reaction: Are you, or are you not supposed to be heroine of this novel?
Main character: I’M SORRY! She really doesn’t seem that bad to me though and I think I might be able to control her from doing anything completely horrible…I’m just saying there might be other ways.

*several pages later*

Character 1: Sooo, said character manipulated you into doing something horrible, and you couldn’t do anything to stop her.
Main character: I KNOW! I FEEL SO HORRIBLE! At least I was able to make things right, but then I think she retaliated against me! She destroyed something precious to me! NOW IT’S PERSONAL.
Rose’s reaction: ….
Main character: DON’T LOOK AT ME LIKE THAT OKAY? I DIDN’T KNOW.
Rose’s reaction: At what point can you claim not knowing when at least 3 different characters on separate occasions told you said evil person was bad news? And one of them had a plan to thwart that character’s potential power and you waited until the last minute to act on it.

*several pages later, said evil character takes power*

Yeah, it’s hard not to think that the MC might have TSTL tendencies. Granted, Camellia started off the novel a spoiled brat who ended up getting what she wanted, but not knowing the full cost of what it was that got her to said point. Even when people tell her that horrible things are poised to happen, she’s reluctant to act until the narrative *pushes* her to act. Two of the biggest problems I had with this novel were events that pushed Camellia.

Spoiler warning ahead, guys:

 

If you have a narrative that uses attempted sexual assault and the death of a GLBT character to move your character to act on anything, you have issues portraying diversity and character momentum. Dude, even if said main character is of a marginalized group, it does not mean that killing a character from another marginalized group for the sole purpose of furthering said main character’s development is a good thing. Yep, this narrative was definitely of the “bury your gays” variety and the sexual assault scene was definitely just used to move the plot’s conflict forward. Plus push a certain relationship. I was pissed about both of these.

 

Yeah….no, nope, and nooooooo.

There were parts of this novel that I did genuinely enjoy. Some of the interactions between characters were sweet and sincere – i.e. between the sisters – but still few between the longer pacing stretches. I liked some aspects of the world depictions and it made me want to learn more about it and the creatures that inhabit the realm. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a fair balance of the writing, characterization and plot development that would make me want to revisit this novel or consider it as a favorite. I’m not sure if I’ll pick up the sequel yet, but I might give the author’s other work a try to see what other projects she’s capable of. Because this novel was a decent idea, but the execution wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be.

Overall score: 2/5 stars.

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