The Belles (The Belles #1) by Dhonielle Clayton (2018)
The Radical Element that I finally decided to read this book.
Set in the dystopian world of Orleans, Camellia Beauregard is a Belle - one of a very small number of girls who have the power to change the way people look. This is a highly valued commodity in this world because most people have gray skin, straw-like hair, and red eyes in their natural state. But the Belles can change all that for the right price. Of course the Belles don't work for themselves or have any control over their own lives, but they still feel privileged. Not only do they have these special powers, but they are the only people who possess natural beauty themselves.
Camellia and her Belle sisters have been training and now are ready to find out where they will go to practice their craft. All hope to become the "favorite," the Belle chosen by the Queen to serve at the palace. The Belles have been raised in isolation, and when they begin their assignments, all is not as they thought it would be. Dark secrets await them, and they will be forced to make impossible choices.
This is a very strange world. One in which beauty is so hard to come by, but is considered all the more important because of that. And the way people can change their looks goes far beyond what is possible in our world - they can change their height, their build, their bone structure, in addition to things like hair texture and eye color. It's painful but everyone is willing to endure it to look beautiful and unique. Looks are prized above everything else.
These transformations have a price for the Belles too. Making changes wears them out and they need to be restored by the use of leeches. Often they are taxed beyond what they really have energy for, but they don't have an option to refuse, especially if it's for the Queen or the Princess.
Camellia is one of the best at her work - possibly the best - but even she has her limits to what she is able, or willing, to do. She also has so many questions about the things she sees and hears in the first months of her work. Rumors about the royal family and the mysteriously ill princess, strange crying in the night and talk of "other" Belles that aren't the official Belles she grew up with. Plus the presence of a charming young man she keeps running into who continues flirting with her despite the harsh penalties that exist for behaving that way towards Belles. The more Camellia learns about all of these mysteries, the more horrified and trapped she feels.
I won't lie - one of the things I loved most about this book was all the descriptions of the looks created by the Belles for their clients. But the desperation these people feel to look beautiful and outdo each other, and what they're willing to endure to make that happen is horrifying. I also loved the relationship between the Belles and the way they try to help each other out in the world. They were not prepared for much of what they were to experience, and it's unclear why that is. I have so many questions about this society and how things became the way they are. I'm also convinced that things aren't necessarily the same everywhere, or at least that's what I'd like to believe.
Of course this is the first in a series, so some of these questions may be answered. I'm going to have to wait a bit though - the second book, The Everlasting Rose, doesn't come out until March. I already put a hold on it through the library so hopefully I'll get one of the first copies available. I can't wait to see what's in store for Camellia and her Belle sisters!