Monday, March 12, 2018

Book Review: The Belles

Title: The Belles
Author: Dionelle Clayton
Genre: Young Adult, Dystopian Fantasy
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

I have a lot to say about this book; but let me start by saying that nothing I am going to say here is an endorsement of the behaviour seen here in Tweets (https://twitter.com/brownbookworm/status/968614017790021635?s=20) by this author. 
Let's break this down and talk about good vs not so good things in The Belles. 

The Good
- This is a very readable book. It has a quick pace and for the most part keeps you turning the pages (even if it's only because you can't believe some things are happening!)
- The concept of 'grey' people who are obsessed with making themselves colourful and beautiful is an interesting take on self image. 
- There is a lot here if you are someone who struggles with body image. It's clear that desiring to be or look like someone you are not is desired in this society to the point of disaster. 
- From light to dark, white to black and all the colours of the spectrum people in this world choose their skin tone. And it's clear that no one skin tone is better or worse than any other. They are all beautiful in their own way. 
- Without a doubt the Belles (which our main gal is one of) are captive slaves. While they may get lots of food, lush accommodations and other perks, they do not get to do what they want, select anything they desire or even visit or talk to people they wish to. If nothing else The Belles makes a wonderful point of ensuring you understand that the Belles while coveted by everyone are slaves to the court, society and even to themselves in some ways. This is probably the best message and fullest portrayal of any concept in this book. 
- Cute teacup animals! I seriously want a mini dragon that I carry around with me everywhere. I also want a snake, beluga whale ((I'll make a portable water tank) and white tiger in minature form as my best buddies that go everywhere with me. 

The Not So Good
- The people of this world have been cursed to be devoid of colour. They are all grey (literally every part of them including hair, eyes, etc.). While I am not going to say I agree or disagree; I will say that I can see how someone who is albino might being a bit offended by this. 
- I have been told a hundred times over by those of colour that comparing skin tones to food is offensive. And yet for pages upon pages of the introduction to The Belles Dhonielle Clayton uses food to describe skin colour. This made me very uncomfortable and was odd given that Clayton is a person of colour. 
- Love at first sight is used in this book. At first I was totally okay with the possible romantic interests and even how their engagements with our lead gal were going. Right up until one of them says that he knew from the moment he saw her that he loved her. Was the perfect way to ruin all the good romance and tension up to that point and destroyed any good opinion I may have had of the character. 
- Everyone seems to be evil in some way shape or form. Now, I adore morally gray anti-heroes (as I believe there is a capacity for a little evil in everyone) but Belles took this to a level that just felt awful. Everytime you thought someone was good or bad they flipped sides and vice versa. It made it almost impossible to like any character a lot and that includes our lead gal.
- I will elaborate on each of these items below but they are still part of the not so good list to me: the plot, diversity representation and character motivation. 

The Plot
This belongs as a bullet under the bad but deserves it's own little rant alone. There is at times too little, and then too much plot in The Belles. It's like Clayton couldn't decide if this was a coming of age, political or emotional story. Now a really good book is all three. Unfortunately The Belles is not a really good book in this manner. The political intrigue confused me at times and I never felt invested in it. I just didn't care. I think this is because it came so much later than the individual character plots. Additionally I felt like the individual character plots that were started off at the beginning were of almost no relevance by the end. The story needed a single driving plot with side stories attached; and for that the single driving plot (in this case political/royal) it needed to be apparent in the first few chapters not 25-30% into the book. 

Diversity Representation
Seeing as how this author is one of the leading authors involved in the push to have more diverse books I was really disappointed to see that our only LGTBQ character was very insignificant. She was clearly dropped into the story in order to check a box off. Ironically she may seem important by the end but really she's just a pawn in the overall game being played at court and her sexuality is of no relevance. I had hoped for a bit more. I'd really liked to have seen one or two of the Belle girls to be attracted to women in some way (be that bi or lesbian). I believe it could have easily been done without changing much of the plot and it would make so much sense given these girls are raised together and don't even encounter boys until much later in life. 
There can't really be much else for diversity representation here as everyone can change their skin colour. Which I think is an awesome way to take the race card out of the book. This is very well done. There are obvious divisions of people still (of course) with other issues (ie: slavery, class distinction, etc.) but it was nice to not have this book centered around the colour of anyone's skin (except to comment on how beautiful all the colours are or what colour skin someone was getting in a beauty treatment; but none were good or bad which I enjoyed). 

Character Motivation
I'm sorry but 'because Maman (mother) told me so' is just not a good enough motivation for me. Neither is 'because everyone covets the favourite'. I really wish there had been more motivation for our lead gal. Maybe more drive and push to be the best Belle possible because she wants people to be as beautiful as possible? The introductory chapters seem to have this but it's quickly replaced by the drive to make her Maman happy. It was just not enough for me. That said, our characters do finally get some motivation near the end of the book but for me by then it's too little too late. 

Moving forward as a Series
This is obviously a first book in a series as it has a cliffhanger ending and the last few chapters set-up a lot of future possibilities for plot. Unfortunately I'm not sure our lead gal and her buddies are strong enough to carry a whole series (however long) as, to date, they are just not that interesting or complex. 

Overall
So the reality is this: the writing is good, the idea is interesting, the teacup animals are adorable but the language choices, characters, representation and overall plot are very disappointing. I can see how many people would really like The Belles as it is readable and while I didn't necessarily want to DNF it, I'm not really sure I was motivated to keep reading it the way I would be a 4 or 5 star book. 

I won't lie knowing the opinions of the author certainly tainted my reading of the novel. And I definitely thought twice about making good on my commitment to review this book given that I'm just a 'white girl' whose opinion (apparently) isn't important to Clayton.
At the end of the day I can think of dozens of other young adult books, with similar themes that I'm far more likely to recommend to someone.

Will I read the second book?
I honestly don't know but right now it's doubtful I would bother. I definitely know I would not be comfortable (at this time) putting money into the pocket of this author given her many opinions on 'white girls'. 

Please note: I received an eARC of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. This is an honest and unbiased review.

1 comment:

Leonore Winterer said...

Phew, I'm a little torn right now...the basic idea sounds interesting, but the way the author presents herself really doesn't sit right with me. I also don't really understand her reasoning about 'she will always right about the issues of being black' (or however she put that) and then writing a book in which race obviously isn't that much of an issue, with everyone chosing their own skin colour...I don't know.
I kind of understand how, in this context, it would be okay to comment on skin colour and even compare it to food, though (although I've never heard that comparison being particularly 'bad' before) - if skin colour becomes a choice, something you can change at will, you can also comment on and critize or describe it in the same way you would for, say, makeup or a hair style. It's a really interesting concept, which is why I still might pick this up on some point...even though I'm not sure I'll like it. I think I will go with my standard principle of seeing an artist seperatly from their work, and see where that will lead me, if that makes any sense.