by Dhonielle Clayton
Enter a world of delightful decadence and of pure, unadulterated perfection that has the ability to be shaped and molded at will. For a price.
In the island city of Orléans, the Belles are curators of everything that is beautiful. They use the sacred arcana afforded them to whisper the high notes of cheekbones, to facilitate the rosiest bud of a mouth, to breathe life into a people who are willing puppets to their design and ever-changing whims. Since the beginning of human existence, the Belles have been the creators of the art of beauty, helping the blank canvasses of their subjects bloom into fruitful pictures of elegance and grace. Only they can bestow the gifts of color and radiance; of moon-beam glow and shining smolder.
As direct descendants of the Goddess of Beauty, the young girls are trained from birth on how to bend auras to their will and temper the most hard-edged of personalities, creating the perfect human race. They can change the color of hair from fawn to golden or they can wipe away the scars bravely won in battle. Belles are the only ones who can take the gray skin of a natural-born human and make them come alive from the outside, in. They are protectors of the race of men, of those damned to live in utter ugliness without the grace a Belle bestows upon them. Without Belles, men, women and children are damned to be plain and simple unless they can afford the services of the creators, and damned still if they are unable to continue their beauty treatments to keep up with the revolving doors of trends.
Camille always knew her destiny. From childhood, there was no question as to what glitter and glamour her future would hold. In a land richly drawn by the hands of her sisters, Camille was certain she would be given the place as their leader – as The Favorite. Hand-chosen by the Queen and her supple court, Camille would live a dream life in the ornately bewitching folds of the castle in the sky. Camille would be plucked from boredom much like a freshly opened rose in an English garden; she would be set in a vase and revered as the most precious of flowers. She’d live out her days in a cloud-like existence, full of the delights afforded to the second most important woman in the kingdom. She would follow in the footsteps of her mother, and she would finally be able to settle into herself as an individual instead of being forced to follow the rules of her teacher, the overly and maddeningly strict Madame Du Barry.
Fragrant roses wither and crumble into ash when the decision finally comes down, throwing a shroud of raincloud and thunder over well-thought-out dreams. What Camille wanted does not come to be and instead she is sent off to another teahouse, in shame. In an effort to set herself apart from her sisters, Camille showed too heavy a hand and as a result, Du Barry stripped her of her legacy and cast her to the other side of town, to a home that is set in the shadow of what she assumed would be her destiny. In the events that followed the reveal of The Favorite, Camille said and did things she is ashamed of; things she can never take back. Once words are set upon the breezes of the night, they can never be captured again. And now she is alone, away from everything she has ever known, and she realizes that the price of individuality can often mean isolation and pure loneliness. The price is a life the like of the dregs settled in the bottom of a chipped teacup, forgotten and ignored.
The sounds of hollow tears and frightful pleading color her nights as she curls up in bed at the Chrysanthemum Teahouse, and Camille lies frozen in her own fear. Who is making those terrible noises? What horrors lie behind the locked doors of this ancient home? Her days are spent carefully honing the beauty of wealthy women; broken bones reset into something finer or grown more shapely, skin colors richly deepened into attractive hues of golden brown or the palest porcelain. Camille has power coveted by the world, but she is a prisoner.
When Fate’s unassuming airs push her back towards her childhood dreams, Camille is hopeful that she can attain what was previously lost to her. She finds herself back in the castle, directly under the tutelage of the Queen, and holding the title of Favorite. Where her sister has been spirited off to, Camille does not know. There was no time to ask questions or make amends. In actuality, no one will tell her anything; her big sister Ivy holds her words captive under the same veil that hides her presumably beautiful face . . . all words except a select few – to be careful and to find a way out. To flee.
Finding an ally in an unlikely and forbidden place, Camille brushes the shoulder of temptation with the son of a wealthy man of the court, a man who also happens to be one of Princess Sophia’s suitors. Unable to stifle her overwhelming desires, Camille allows herself to be swept away by his charm, weaving a spiderweb of deception and intrigue in secret gardens and locked beauty treatment rooms.
All the while, someone is watching Camille. A shark is circling the smell of blood, ready to strike at the most unexpected moment. Camille is not safe; her list of allies is shorter than she at first believed, and she finds herself thrust in the midst of things dark and twisted and maniacal. Of things unnatural and wrought with pure evil. The lengths that some will go to achieve their innermost desires are often set with untoward intentions, the blood of others, and unbearably cruel lies. But, don’t we all just yearn to be as lovely as the buttercream frosting of a strawberry cake? Wouldn’t you risk it all to be beautiful?
The Belles is the newest novel by author Dhonielle Clayton, best known for her Tiny Pretty Things collaboration. A former librarian, Clayton seems to have lived the dreams of most young girls . . . a teacher, a dancer, an author, a dessert maker. Her former experiences have mixed with an incredible imagination to fashion something beautiful all of her own. The Belles is a novel that is sure to fit in with Clayton’s work at the non-profit We Need Diverse Books and the Cake Literary, a company that works with young writers to produce freshly baked stories full of diversity and magic. While there is always enchantment to be found in the city of New Orleans, Clayton’s spin on the The Big Easy is unique and inspired. Those in-the-know will smile at the nods to the legendary fleur-de-lis symbol that saturates the city of both New Orleans and the fictional world Clayton has depicted, as well as the mentions of the canals and ports that surround one of the most mysterious and alluring cities in all of the South.
And we’re not even getting to the part about the food.
To say Clayton is a master at whipping up cream-filled desserts in the form of the written word is an understatement. Her literary illustrations will leave you feeling gluttonous and practically piggish – and at the very least, anxious for a Belle of your very own to help iron out those ever-growing waistlines.
In short, The Belles is pure magic . . . it’s decadent and delightfully creepy. It’s equal parts wanton and benevolent; wicked and fair. It’s the embodiment of a quiet stroll down the Garden District in NOLA, full of the voodoo of the bayou and soaked with the heady drunkenness that only bourbon can give you. Clayton has captured society’s infatuation with beauty in a carefully crafted nutshell. The first in what I believe to be a trilogy (reports are not 100% accurate from what I could find on the WWW), The Belles is a MUST-READ this year, and makes the perfect addition to any sinfully delicious box of chocolates you plan on picking up for your sweetheart this Valentine’s Day. The Belles is all the satisfaction, with none of the calories.
5 out of 5 stars, hands down.