Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

I'm basically that one friend of yours who keeps threatening to delete their Facebook account but never does, only instead of "delete their Facebook account" replace that with "stop reading YA." After the utter disappointment that was CHILDREN OF BLOOD AND BONE, I decided that I was officially putting everyone's YA reviews on notice. I was tired of getting duped.

And then I read THE BELLES.

THE BELLES is not a perfect book. The first 100 pages or so are a nightmare-confection of hyphenated words, overuse of the word "Belle," and more pink, pretty, fluffy things than you would expect to see in the average seven-year-old girl's room. If you can stick it out, you should, because after the first 100 pages, THE BELLES strips off its ballgown to reveal machine gun bazongas, like those women in the first Austin Powers movie, and says, "WHAT UP MOTHERFUCKERS." Shit gets real.

The best way to describe this book is to imagine the Capitol from THE HUNGER GAMES. (Remember all that ridiculous makeup and those costumes?) Now imagine a world where their entire culture and economy revolves around all that conspicuous consumption and superficial beauty. Orleans is a fantasy kingdom that appears to be very loosely based off New Orleans, where magical girls called Belles use powers called "arcana" to make people beautiful (or ugly) - but at terrible cost.

There have been a number of books coming out over the past couple years that have taken this frothy-fantasy-gone-wrong approach. Similar books are Melissa De La Cruz's THE RING AND THE CROWN, Amy Ewing's THE JEWEL, Richelle Mead's THE GLITTERING COURT, and Aprilynne Pike's GLITTER. Some of these books ran with the topic better than others, but it seems to be becoming a pretty popular subgenre of YA dystopic fantasy and I actually like that, because I think that sense of "othering", of being not good enough when weighed against society's ruthless standards, is something that a lot of people - men and (but especially) women - relate to. Peruse enough hashtags on Instagram and you'll see all sorts of tips and tricks (with sponsored products) about how to make your nose look smaller, your breasts look bigger, or how to slim down in time for summer.

What makes THE BELLES stand out more from some of these other books is that it is, in many ways, a lot darker, and isn't afraid to show that darkness rather than relegating it off-screen. It borrows techniques from chilling works of dystopic sci-fi, like 1984 and THE HANDMAID'S TALE.

You're probably thinking that this is a pretty positive review, and wondering where that "THE BELLES is not a perfect book" business comes in. Well, here's the thing - it's a tad predictable. There are three pretty big twists in this book and I figured out two of them from about twenty pages in. When it happened, I was like, "Aha." Instead of, "Oh noes!" I stuck around through that tedious first 100 pages because of the build-up, so I was kind of disappointed to have my suspicions confirmed.

This book also falls to the Bury Your Gays trope, where the sole LGBT+ character dies in order to spur on the plot. It's a pretty horrific death, too, and happens completely on-screen. Even I was disturbed, which says something if you follow me and know what kinds of twisted shit I enjoy reading. I can definitely see why so many people who read this book were upset because of that. There's also a bizarre moment where the book refers to a transgender (or at least non-binary) character in one of the "newsies" (read: tabloids) as "BOY TURNS INTO GIRL" via the arcana magic, which, okay. 1) If they're trans, they were never a boy, and 2) context, please? and 3) gender-reassignment magic seems to be opening up a whole kettle of fish this book isn't ready for.

Apart from that pretty awkward blip, I did enjoy THE BELLES. It's a strange creature, and kind of terrifying, but I found the story fascinating enough that I couldn't put it down. It would make a good movie, too. Just be forewarned that the author sequel-baits the hell out of the ending and yes, it ends on a total cliffhanger and no, The Belles, #2 doesn't even have a publication date, yet.


3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars

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