Who wants love when one can be powerful?

How far would you go to be beautiful? Expensive treatments? Pain? In the world of The Belles most people are born grey, ugly in the eyes of high society. Into each generation Belles are born, destined to serve the crown by making people colourful again.

Camellia is one such Belle and she is eager to be chosen as favourite and serve in the palace. Whilst she loves her sisters she has been taught to compete against them, and they will surely be happy serving in the kingdom’s tea houses. Actually the monarchy here is matriarchal but it’s not called a queendom.

It’s not just colour the Belles add but they can shape bodies, grow hair, completely alter appearances. The process is not painless but for many, that is a small price to pay. It’s tiring work for the Belles too and they get little say in how their lives are managed. They are slaves, and the tea houses and madams put me in the mind of brothels.

The queen’s reign is coming to an end and Princess Charlotte, next in line to the throne is in a coma. Unless she awakens soon, Princess Sophie will be named regent and her mother has fears that she will not be a good ruler. Camellia soon discovers how hard it is to obey a cruel mistress, she can only stay in her favour by following orders but she knows she isn’t doing the right thing.

At times I was frustrated and disappointed in Camellia, but she was raised a certain way and she often has little choice. She tries to make amends where she can. It’s sad to see a world ruled by women but where they are still so pitted against each other, still judged by how they look and their sexuality controlled.

Always remember that emotions are tethered to the blood, and the blood is where your gifts are. Any excess passion can cause contamination and too much pressure. It can damage the arcana.

For a book about beauty, it is expected that it will be heavy on the descriptions; the opulence of their homes, the dresses and hairstyles. There’s an over-reliance on using food to describe appearances, perhaps this is on purpose, but a chocolate chip cookie complexion does not sound flattering (and you know, vanilla isn’t the colour people seem to think it is).

I didn’t quite understand why the Belles applied make-up before a transformation or use metal implements. The tools do strengthen the link between plastic-surgery and what the Belles do but it’s meant to be magic. Belles aren’t supposed to reveal their secrets and it’s first person narrative, so it’s just not explained in detail. I have liked a bit more world-building outside of the palace life.

I dislike the fact that I need to be altered. The ship had to dock every month for us to have this maintenance done. It always felt so ridiculous. Unnecessary.

It took me a while to get into but by the end I was thoroughly absorbed. There better be another book because I want to know what happens next. I want to know those baby Belles will be OK and did Camellia’s actions have any effect on anything? More please!

The Belles is published by Gollancz and will be available in paperback and ebook editions from the 8th February 2018. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.

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Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.