In the archipeligo of Orleans, the majority of the population are born cursed with grey, wrinkled skin and red eyes. Only the Belles, a select group of women, are born with different coloured skin, hair and eyes and, more importantly, the power to make others beautiful through magic. Camellia Beauregard and the other Belles of her generation have turned 16 and are ready to make their debut at Court. Camellia longs to be the favourite of the queen and remain at the palace, but the competition is fierce and may cost her her best friend whether she wins or loses. The Belles is a young adult novel with an original and intriguing premise. Refreshingly it is neither full of violence, nor centred around a shmaltzy romance, as many YA novels are.
The world of Orleans is a fantastic realm, containing things like magic and teacup dragons (more of these, please! I want one!), with influences from France and Japan. The Belles themselves are of various different skin tones (their society doesn't really have a concept of race beyond Gris and Belle), from Camellia, who is depicted on the gorgeous cover, who is darker skinned, to her friend Ambrosia, who is described as fair skinned and ginger haired.
The book has been criticised for having a negative portrayal of albino people, which hadn't actually occurred to me while reading it. The "Gris" (grey people) in the book aren't actually albinos, but have wrinkled grey skin and red eyes, supposedly because they were cursed by a god, but I can see why people might draw a comparison with albinism. It must get annoying for real people with albinism to read and see nothing but negative portrayals of people like them in popular culture (eg. in The Da Vinci Code, Blood Meridian etc.), particularly since in some parts of the world albinos are still murdered for magical rituals. However, I don't think that perpetuating such stereotypes was the author's intention here. At several points in the book characters state that beauty lies in variety (of hair, skin and eye colour etc.) and that it would be a great pity if everybody looked the same. There is a bit to unpack there which I imagine could make for some lively book club discussion.
The Belles struggle with a need to live up to the expectations of one's parents and society, and balancing ambition with duty. The plot contains plenty of drama, with betrayals, intrigue and hints of romance and a suitably evil villain.
There is a lot of description of decor, fashion and people's appearance, which I suppose was necessary given the subject matter but which I found became a bit tedious to read. I honestly don't care which shade of flower petals everyone is wearing in their hair while I'm waiting to find out who is attempting to assassinate whom and why.
The book could also do with a content warning since it contains an attempted sexual assault, which the perpetrator basically gets away with, so it may be upsetting to some readers.
Since the story is told from the point of view of one of the Belles, who live very sheltered lives, the reader doesn't get answers to a lot of the questions that come up about how the world of the novel works. What happened to all the current generation's mothers? Why are there so few Belles now compared with previous generations? Why are the current generation all the same age? Some of the answers to these questions are provided as the story unfolds while some are only hinted at. Some will hopefully be answered in the sequel. The Belles is an exciting young adult fantasy novel with an original premise. It's an enjoyable read and contains some interesting themes that would make it a good choice for a book club discussion.