UnCannon: Dhonielle Clayton is a young (37 is younger than me so it counts!) black woman so she is pretty polar opposite of an old white man. I had my eye on The Belles for a while now and when the Black Publishing Power Initiative came up, it seemed the perfect time to buy the book.
Clayton created a world where beauty is the ultimate, ever changing goal, and access to beauty is controlled. Cursed by the God of the Sky the people of Orleans are born gray, with red eyes, and hair the texture of straw. The Goddess of Beauty loved the people and gave them Belles, young women with magical abilities to change appearance, who are born looking beautiful with no need for alteration. The Belles are precious and protected. Raised at the Maison Rouge de la Beaute they are groomed their whole lives to transmute every aspect of an individual from body size, features, coloring, hair texture, and even temperament.
Laws have been written governing what one can and cannot do with one’s body. Serving class people can be required to stay within narrowly defined beauty standards. Over time the magic slowly fades, the gray skin and hair reemerges, the body shape reverts, and treatments must be done again. The wealthy can afford to change their appearance nearly at will just with the expenditure of money, often chasing after trends and trying to create the most beautiful looks. Everyone else is cautious about the number of changes and how often their look gets refreshed due to the cost of a Belle’s services.
The book starts off as a luxurious fantasy with gorgeous dresses, special carriages, opulent surroundings, and an unending parade of sweets as food but it isn’t long before ugliness in the system is revealed. Camellia (Camille) imagined her life as a Belle to be rewarding, bringing beauty to people. But Camille wants more than to just transform, she wants to help people find the beauty within themselves. That there isn’t a need to change everything about oneself just to fit a trend. What Camille finds is quite different than her dreams. Her schedule is booked with appointments morning to night making her ragged and no one listens when she tries to praise aspects of an individual’s natural features. When Camille becomes involved at court she finds how deep the rot of superficiality and power games have gone. And she begins to question the purpose and treatment of Belles.
This was fantasy the likes of which I haven’t read before, full of decadence and frippery, a magic system based on beauty, and I was entranced. The sequel, “The Everlasting Rose” is going on my July book order.