ARC Review: Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix by Julie C. Dao

Title: Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix
Author: Julie C. Dao
Series: Rise of the Empress, #2
Pages: 384
Publisher: Philomel Books
Release Date: November 6th 2018
*I received an ARC of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review*

      “This fairy tale retelling lives in a mystical world inspired by the Far East, where the Dragon Lord and the Serpent God battle for control of the earthly realm; it is here that the flawed heroine of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns finally meets her match. An epic fantasy finale to the Rise of the Empress novels.
      Princess Jade has grown up in exile, hidden away in a monastery while her stepmother, the ruthless Xifeng, rules as Empress of Feng Lu. But the empire is in distress and its people are sinking into poverty and despair. Even though Jade doesn’t want the crown, she knows she is the only one who can dethrone the Empress and set the world right. Ready to reclaim her place as rightful heir, Jade embarks on a quest to raise the Dragon Lords and defeat Xifeng and the Serpent God once and for all. But will the same darkness that took Xifeng take Jade, too? Or will she find the strength within to save herself, her friends, and her empire?
      Set in an East Asian-inspired fantasy world filled with breathtaking pain and beauty, Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix is filled with dazzling magic, powerful prose, and characters readers won’t soon forget.”

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Julie C. Dao concludes her Rise of the Empress duology with Kingdom of the Blazing Phoenix. Filled with enchanting storytelling and a likable cast of characters, this companion novel is sure to please fans of the first book. In Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, readers witnessed the downfall of the protagonist Xifeng as she embraced the darkness within. In this follow-up novel, years have passed since Xifeng has become Empress. The empire has suffered under a cruel regime and many of the people have become restless. When Jade, the heir to the Empire, is summoned back home by her stepmother Xifeng, she discovers that evil can take many forms. Xifeng is not the doting wife and stepmother she pretends to be and when Jade uncovers the truth about how Xifeng has been able to hold on to power, she is forced to flee. In order to save her people and regain her rightful place as heir, Jade will have to journey far and overcome challenges meant to crush even the strongest of people.

Jade is just shy of eighteen years old. Having spent the majority of her life in a monastery, Jade’s understanding of the world has been limited. Though she has grown up far from the luxuries befitting her rank, her ignorance is a privilege in itself. Jade has always wanted to forget who she really is, to make vows and become a monk. When she arrives in the Imperial City and sees how much her people are suffering, she is forced to confront the world she’s spent her whole life hiding from. I loved that Jade’s journey isn’t just an outward one, that she must reflect on who she’s been and who she will choose to be. For people like Xifeng, who only see others as pawns in their own story, having friends and family is an easy way to be manipulated. For Jade, the allies she surrounds herself with become her greatest strength. From her surrogate grandmother Amah, who raised her when she was cast aside, to Amah’s granddaughter Wren, who exhibits a very different form of strength than Jade, these relationships are what keep Jade from being entice by the same kind of temptations that Xifeng has fallen prey to. The strongest influences in Jade’s life have always been women, including the mother she lost at such a young age and are the reason Jade, while not necessarily the strongest or bravest character, is able to challenge someone as powerful as Xifeng.

Xifeng is one of my favorite literary characters because she is allowed to want power for power’s sake. While I would never personally side with Xifeng, at the end of Forest of a Thousand Lanterns, I could not help but root for her just a little. The biggest challenge with this novel was shifting my own perspective. Seeing Xifeng not just as a ambitious young woman who did everything in her power to get what she wanted, but as an antagonist to Jade, a woman who took her mother’s place and who has continued to poison the people in order to hold on to power. One of my favorite elements of the novel was the importance of folktales. Jade grew up hearing Amah tell her stories and though she didn’t fully appreciate what Amah was trying to teach her, these tales become the building blocks of Jade’s journey.

If you’re looking for a unique take on fairytale retellings, Julie C. Dao’s Rise of the Empress duology is a must. She’s written a vibrant world with characters you can both love and love to hate.




ARC Review: Beneath the Citadel by Destiny Soria

Title: Beneath the Citadel
Author: Destiny Soria
Series: N/A
Pages: 544
Publisher: Amulet
Release Date: October 9th 2018
*I received an ARC copy of this book from the publisher which does not influence my review*

      “In the city of Eldra, people are ruled by ancient prophecies. For centuries, the high council has stayed in power by virtue of the prophecies of the elder seers. After the last infallible prophecy came to pass, growing unrest led to murders and an eventual rebellion that raged for more than a decade.
      In the present day, Cassa, the orphaned daughter of rebels, is determined to fight back against the high council, which governs Eldra from behind the walls of the citadel. Her only allies are no-nonsense Alys, easygoing Evander, and perpetually underestimated Newt, and Cassa struggles to come to terms with the legacy of rebellion her dead parents have left her — and the fear that she may be inadequate to shoulder the burden. But by the time Cassa and her friends uncover the mystery of the final infallible prophecy, it may be too late to save the city — or themselves.”

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Destiny Soria’s Beneath the Citadel has interesting political and magical systems, but I found the story overall to be a little too convoluted. Soria’s debut Iron Cast‘s biggest strength was the friendship at its center and it’s the same with this sophomore novel. Beneath the Citadel focuses on four friends infiltrating the center of an all-powerful political power in hopes of discovering why people in the city of Eldra have been disappearing. In a world ruled by seers’ prophecies, the ruling chancellor and council have used these visions to wield power over the people, squashing any rebellion before it can gain any footing. Cassandra “Cassa” Vera is the daughter of rebels. Her distrust of the council runs deep; she along with her friends, Alys, Evander, and Newt hatch a plan to infiltrate the Citadel and find answers. The novel opens with these four friends being dragged in front of the governing body, their plan having been thwarted. I’m still not sure how I feel about the choice to open the novel with the leads having already been arrested. I was really interested in reading about their scheme, how they each contributed to the plan, and how they worked together. What follows is the lead characters trying to stop the council by teaming up with a mysterious player who has his own motives.

Cassa is the unofficial leader of the pact. She’s bold and confident, with a leap-first-and-ask-questions-later kind of personality. Her drive, however, is infectious. Perhaps the reason people are so drawn to her is the legacy she carries. Her parents were prominent rebel leaders who died trying to protect the people of Eldra. In a way Cassa’s hatred of the citadel is the only way she knows how to honor her parents. Much of the time, it felt like Cassa wanted to do things only on her terms and while there is some character development in this department, it felt like she was never really a part of the group dynamic. I never felt her connection to the other characters, including Evander, with whom she had a past romantic relationship.

I really liked Alys. She’s more brains than brawn and not someone you would immediately think of when trying to break into a secure facility. Still, she’s an invaluable asset to the team and excels in her own area of expertise. She’s very science-based and believes everything can be explained through science, hence her passion for apothecary. Alys also has anxiety which hits her at inopportune moments. I loved her relationship with her brother Evander. These two are very different, but I loved how close they were and that they balanced each other out. Evander was an easy character to like, charming and sly. He’s one of the few bisexual male characters I’ve come across. There’s an openness to him that the other characters didn’t possess. He had a really interesting relationship with Cassa that I kind of wanted to explore more as it gave us more insight into who she was, but I understand why Soria chose to distance him from her as his relationship with Newt is in the first stages of a romance.

Newt has a really interesting backstory involving his father and his tumultuous relationship with the rebel group Cassa’s parents belonged to. His father has raised Newt to be better than him, but in a very abusive way. Due to his size and demeanor, Newt is used to being underestimated, but of the four, I believe he is the most talented. There is also a fifth character who is important to the story who threw me for a loop when I first picked up this book. Juggling so many different perspectives with an already complicated storyline involving people who could not only see visions of the future, but could also take memories, and see your thoughts, sometimes made the novel hard to follow. I appreciated how intricate the story was, but some of the decisions made by the characters didn’t feel like it carried as much weight as they should have. Part of these characters’ motivation is the people of Eldra, but aside from a handful of scenes, we’re never really introduced to regular folk.

I liked the high stakes in this one, but wish the world outside of the political walls of the citadel had been fleshed out. I will say that Destiny Soria’s Beneath the Citadel has one of the boldest endings I’ve read in a long while and I applaud the gutsy move.



Mini Reviews: The City of Brass + Gabi, a Girl in Pieces

MiniI have a set of very different books for you for this round of mini-reviews. These are both titles that I’ve been meaning to get to for a while and I’m glad I finally found the time to pick them up. Everyone has been raving about S.A Chakraborty’s The City of Brass and I’m so happy to have finally met these characters. Gabi, a Girl in Pieces by Isabel Quintero has been on my TBR for years. With the start of Latinx Heritage Month coming, I wanted to finally get to this one in early September. I am very disappointed in myself for not picking it up sooner. You can read my thoughts on these two titles a little more in depth below. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: The City of Brass
Author: S.A. Chakraborty
Series: The Daevabad Trilogy, #1
Pages: 533
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Release Date: November 14th 2017 

      “Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of 18th century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles.
      But when Nahri accidentally summons an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to accept that the magical world she thought only existed in childhood stories is real. For the warrior tells her a new tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire, and rivers where the mythical marid sleep; past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises, and mountains where the circling hawks are not what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass, a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound.
      In that city, behind gilded brass walls laced with enchantments, behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments are simmering. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, she learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences.
After all, there is a reason they say be careful what you wish for…”

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“A hot breeze swept past her cheeks, and Nahri lifted her eyes. The cliffs were on fire; the wet trees snapped and cracked as they burned. The air smelled poisonous, hot and seeded with tiny burning embers that swept across the dead landscape and twinkled above the dark river.”

S.A. Chakraborty’s The City of Brass is an all-encompassing fantasy with great characters and a world that’s spellbindingly brilliant. Orphaned and penniless, Nahri has managed to survive on the streets of Cairo, stealing and swindling her marks out of money. When she inadvertently summons a dangerous djinn, Nahri discovers the fantastical stories she grew up hearing are rooted in truth. Chakraborty’s world is deliciously multilayered and I loved that with every page, we discovered something new. Nahri was an easy character to like. She’s cunning and resourceful; she wants more than what life has dealt her and is willing to do what is needed to get it. I really enjoyed Dara, not just because he’s the kind of brooding character I’m immediately drawn to, but because like Nahri, he is also thrown into a world he doesn’t quite understand. The world as Dara left it has shifted. His people are no longer in control of the city of Daevabad; instead, the Qahtani, a djinn family, have taken over. The royal family have tried to find a balance in their city between djinn, daeva, and the shafit (offspring of djinn and humans). Their methods are not always humane. Ali is King Ghassan’s second son, both a scholar and a warrior; his own convictions often pit him against his own father. Ali was often times a frustrating character. I liked that he wanted to be better than the example his father and often his brother gave him, but his self-righteousness and naivete made me want to shake him by the shoulders. Chakraborty does a fantastic job giving voice to every side in this story. The internal conflict in Daevabad is not new and the characters’ decisions have far reaching consequences. The City of Brass is a perfect read for those looking for a dynamic fantasy and complex characters.

Rating: 4/5


Title: Gabi,a Girl in Pieces
Author: Isabel Quintero
Series: N/A
Pages: 284
Publisher: Cinco Puntos Press
Release Date: October 14th 2014

      “Gabi Hernandez chronicles her last year in high school in her diary: college applications, Cindy’s pregnancy, Sebastian’s coming out, the cute boys, her father’s meth habit, and the food she craves. And best of all, the poetry that helps forge her identity.
      July 24
      My mother named me Gabriella, after my grandmother who, coincidentally, didn’t want to meet me when I was born because my mother was unmarried, and therefore living in sin. My mom has told me the story many, many, MANY, times of how, when she confessed to my grandmother that she was pregnant with me, her mother beat her. BEAT HER! She was twenty-five. That story is the basis of my sexual education and has reiterated why it’s important to wait until you’re married to give it up. So now, every time I go out with a guy, my mom says, “Ojos abiertos, piernas cerradas.” Eyes open, legs closed. That’s as far as the birds and the bees talk has gone. And I don’t mind it. I don’t necessarily agree with that whole wait until you’re married crap, though. I mean, this is America and the 21st century; not Mexico one hundred years ago. But, of course, I can’t tell my mom that because she will think I’m bad. Or worse: trying to be White.

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“I felt my head lifted up and my neck bared, somewhere distant between all the pain. Tears streamed down my face and my body twitched uncontrollably. I wondered if this would, at least, put an end to my torture.”

I am mentally kicking myself for not picking up Isabel Quintero’s Gabi, a Girl in Pieces sooner. This contemporary features one of the most genuine voices I’ve come across, handling difficult issues with honesty and care, with representation that spoke directly to this Latina reader. Gabi Hernandez is many things. Best friend. Daughter. Sister. Fat girl. Mexican-American. In her senior year of high school, Gabi is trying to juggle all her different identities while simultaneously not disappointing her mother and not letting her father’s meth addiction take her whole family down with him. Told in diary entries, Quintero’s novel feels intimate and personal. Gabi feels fully-fleshed out; she’s candid, self-depreciating, and had me laughing out loud on several occasions. So many of these characters felt familiar from the eccentric tía to the judgmental mother. The novel addresses teen pregnancy, homophobia, being the child of an addict, and gender roles in the Latinx community. I loved that Gabi found a creative outlet in her poetry and found it really rewarding to see how her poetry matures over the course of the novel. Gabi, a Girl in Pieces is the kind of novel I wish I had as a teen as several of Gabi’s hopes and fears felt like my own. TW: homophobia, fatphobia, slut shaming, rape, and drug use.

Rating: 5/5


Mini Reviews: Daughter of the Siren Queen + Every Heart a Doorway

MiniI’ve had this set of mini-reviews in my drafts for over a month and couldn’t quite find the time to fit it in. I finally have a chance to share a few thoughts on Tricia Levenseller’s Daughter of the Siren Queen and Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway, the latter of which I’m so glad I finally got to. Covers below are linked to Goodreads.

Title: Daughter of the Siren Queen
Author: Tricia Levenseller
Series: Daughter of the Pirate King, #2
Pages: 341
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Release Date: February 27th 2018 

      “Alosa’s mission is finally complete. Not only has she recovered all three pieces of the map to a legendary hidden treasure, but the pirates who originally took her captive are now prisoners on her ship. Still unfairly attractive and unexpectedly loyal, first mate Riden is a constant distraction, but now he’s under her orders. And she takes great comfort in knowing that the villainous Vordan will soon be facing her father’s justice.
      When Vordan exposes a secret her father has kept for years, Alosa and her crew find themselves in a deadly race with the feared Pirate King. Despite the danger, Alosa knows they will recover the treasure first . . . after all, she is the daughter of the Siren Queen.”

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“Warmth envelopes me. The sea enfolds me into the world’s most gentle caress. I am one of her own, and she missed me during my long absence.”

Tricia Levenseller’s Daughter of the Siren Queen, conclusion to her swashbuckling duology, excels in its entertainment value much like its predecessor Daughter of the Pirate King, but still falls short when it comes to world-building and sometimes characterization. I loved seeing Alosa with her own crew in this sequel. Her father Kalligan has yielded a tremendous amount of power over Alosa, having shaped her into a ruthless and loyal pirate. Captaining the Ava-lee has been the one place where Alosa has had control over her own life. She’s put together a crew made almost entirely of women and one of my favorite parts about this book is when we get to see them working together. Still, I wanted more, especially from the vast array of minor characters. It also would have been nice if most of the conversations Alosa had with her close female crew members didn’t always revolve around men. I’m glad we got to learn more about Alosa and her siren side, but do feel like there was a missed opportunity when it came to her mother. I wanted more interaction between these two, but every meeting was so truncated. Part of the fun of the first book was the banter and growing tension between Alosa and Riden. Levenseller is able to maintain this often entertaining rapport while also pushing her characters outside of their comfort zones. The most rewarding part of their relationship is watching them learn to open up to one another. Daughter of the Siren Queen could still do a little more flushing out with its world-building. I enjoyed finally becoming acquainted with sirens, but I still wanted to know more about this world that Alosa and company occupy. If the first novel didn’t blow you away, you probably won’t be taken by surprise by the second; but if you found the first to be a really enjoyable read, there’s plenty to look forward to in this sequel.

Rating: 3/5


Title: Every Heart a Doorway
Author: Seanan McGuire
Series: Wayward Children, #1
Pages: 357
Release Date: April 5th 2016

      “Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
      No Solicitations
      No Visitors
      No Quests
      Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.
      But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
      Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.
       But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.
      No matter the cost.”

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“Hope hurts. That’s what you need to learn, and fast, if you don’t want it to cut you open from the inside out. Hope is bad. Hope means you keep on holding to things that won’t ever be so again, and so you bleed an inch at a time until there’s nothing left.”

Seanan McGuire’s novella Every Heart a Doorway poses an interesting question: what happens to the children who return from their adventures from places like Wonderland? At Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, students are learning to cope with returning to the “real” world. For some, the transition is difficult. How can you accept your place in the world when you always want to return to another? For others, the transition feels impossible. Why stay in a world that does not see you for who you are when you can go home to the place that let you be yourself instead of a version forced upon you by others? McGuire’s novella is enchanting and haunting. I loved that each child had their own world that they escaped to, that made sense to them even when it didn’t to those with similar experiences. There are dark Underworlds and bright ones, some with logical foundations and others that thrive on nonsense. While Nancy is the protagonist of this short story, I was really drawn to Jack. She’s such an animated character. The fact that she apprenticed for a mad scientist and carried all these eccentricities back into this world made her such an interesting character. The mystery in this one felt short-lived, but that’s understandable for a novella. The ending was not what I expected. I thought Nancy had gotten to a place of acceptance and so I was surprised by the conclusion. All the children’s stories were so intriguing, I wouldn’t have minded a full-length novel and am happy to discover the next novella in this series covers Jack and her sister Jill’s story. I’d recommend Every Heart a Doorway to anyone who enjoys fantasy stories that involve hidden doors and portals to unseen worlds, and who ever wondered what happens to those who come back.

Rating: 4/5


Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

Title: Strange the Dreamer
Author: Laini Taylor
Series: Strange the Dreamer, #1
Pages: 544
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Release Date: March 28th 2017

      “The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.
      What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?
      The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?
      Welcome to Weep.”

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“Lazlo felt as though the top of his head were open and the universe had dropped a lit match in. He understood in that moment that he was smaller than he had ever known, and the realm of the unknowable was bigger. So much bigger.”

Laini Taylor dazzles with her writing and storytelling ability in her latest fantasy Strange the Dreamer. Lazlo Strange has always been a nobody. With his head in the clouds, Lazlo has been regarded as a little odd, especially when it comes to his obsession with the mythical city of Weep. Every since Lazlo was a child, he’s been fascinated by fantastical stories of Weep and when its true name was stricken from everyone’s memory, Lazlo became determined to find out everything he possibly could. Years later, Lazlo is still trying to uncover the truth of what happened to Weep, though most still view it as folklore. When strangers arrive in Zosma, bearing a striking resemblance to the soldiers of Weep, Lazlo can’t help but think this is his chance, a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the city that’s been calling to him his whole life. But there is a darkness in Weep that has forced the Tizerkane soldiers to seek out help from the outside world. A mystery that they have spent years trying to solve and one that will spellbind Lazlo and take him on an unexpected journey of love and heartache.

Laini Taylor’s writing is enchanting. Strange the Dreamer reads like a dark kind of fairy tale, taking readers on a sinuous journey. We see Lazlo as a rambunctious child, prone to fantasizing; he is a warrior of Weep, defending its people against the monsters that reside in its magical land. We see him as he grows into a man, defined by his inability to forget the mostly forgotten city. Though seeing the city with his own eyes would be the ultimate dream come true, Lazlo recognizes that he lacks the kind of resources needed to do so. There is an undefinable allure to Lazlo that makes him impossible to ignore and so he is invited by Eril-Fane, leader of the Tizerkane, to accompany them back to Weep. There is a kind of wide-eyes innocence to the junior librarian. He is good and honest without much effort. He’s intelligent and imaginative without any arrogance. He’s unassuming and open-minded without any a hint of duplicity. In all honesty, I wouldn’t be able to understand why anyone would not immediately take a liking to Lazlo, which is an asset for a novel that takes it’s time to unfold.

There are other beings at play in the city of Weep, a mystery that haunts and even follows the people of Weep into their dreams. Once upon a time, Weep was ensnared by the Mesarthim, gods who used their powers to take when they saw fit, to wreck havoc because they could. Eril-Fane, the Godslayer, rose up when others couldn’t, cutting down the Mesarthum rule, killing every last one, or so they believed. Sarai is an offspring of one of the gods and she along with four others have hidden themselves from the world in order to survive. Their lives have not been easy and when Sarai’s magical gift puts her in contact with Lazlo, no one’s world will every be the same. Taylor’s does such a fantastic job of giving both sides of this war a voice that it becomes impossible to call one side right and the other wrong. Both have been touched by unspeakable evil and both carry an justifiable hate for the other.

While Laini Taylor’s Strange the Dreamer does at times feel unnecessarily long, the likable protagonist and beguiling storyline make this a must read.



The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

Title: The Belles
Author: Dhonielle Clayton
Series: The Belles, #1
Pages: 440
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Release Date: February 6th 2018

      “Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.
      But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.
      With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.”

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“I try not to be the little girl who always jumps as soon as she walks into a room. I try to be the girl who isn’t afraid of anything. Or anyone. But a twinge of fear grows inside me despite myself.”

Dhonielle Clayton paints an enchanting and dark world in her latest novel The Belles. Camellia Beauregard was born a Belle. In a world where beauty has been stripped from its people, Belles are the only ones who can manipulate and transform them into something beautiful. Camellia and her sisters have been training for years for their debut, hoping to be chosen by the queen of Orléans to be the crown’s favorite, the ultimate form of validation for all their hard work. But being the favorite comes with consequences none of the girls could have prepared for and soon Camellia finds herself caught between royals that not only expect her to be the best, but demand it of her. Not obeying has dire consequence for Camellia, her sisters, and the entire kingdom.

Clayton’s writing takes you through a whirlwind of sensations. She captivates readers from the very first page, tapping into each of our senses with such ease. I not only saw Orléans, I felt it, heard it, smelled and tasted it. One of the things I loved about Clayton’s use of beauty is that it is all-encompassing in this world. It isn’t limited to the rich social spheres of Orléans. It is not just the people who must be beautiful, it is the homes, the teahouses, the fashion. Clayton’s descriptions are vivid and delectable; at times, it felt like I was devouring the words instead of reading them. Beauty has become the only way of life for those in Orléans, and for many this has become an obsession. There are some very ugly and terrifying characters in this one who make very chilling villains. They are willing to do anything to be beautiful and to control those who can wield such power. Inevitably, envy and jealousy are byproducts of a world that demands perfection. Though Camellia is the heroine of our story, she is not immune to these more ugly attributes. When one’s value is defined by how beautiful one is, morality takes a back seat and even Camellia find herself giving in when she knows she shouldn’t.

It’s clear from very early on that Camellia and the other Belles have been purposefully isolated from society. There is an undeniable innocence to them and they are told that vices like passion and even love can throw off the balance of their arcana, the essence of which makes them able to work their transformations. Whether this is true or not is yet to be determined, but I could not help but draw a parallel to how we as a society define beauty in girls. From doe-eyed models to lipsticks named Lolita, it sends the message that innocence is alluring and sexy, and any tainting of this especially with sexual experience, poisons the whole apple. This comes to a head when Camellia is attacked by one of her customers later on in the story. There is a particularly unnerving scene where Camellia is tasked with altering a woman’s body and with a writing instrument, marks the places that need to be improved. It was a jarring reminder of the stories I used to hear growing up of girls marking each other’s bodies with permanent marker, circling the parts they viewed as flaws. 

I do wish we had the opportunity to get more acquainted with the other Belles. Though I do understand why they are kept separate from Camellia. Still, we are first introduced to these young women together and though some of them were driven by ambition and others by defiance, they form Camellia’s family and helped her become the person she is. We get a more complete glimpse of Camellia’s relationship with her sister Amber and though I wanted to worry over her like Camellia did, her unquestioned obedience and jealousy didn’t exactly endear her to me. I am much more interested in the rebellious Edel who I hope we get to see more of in the sequel. Another issue I had was the romance. While I can’t complain of the pacing as it feeds into the inexperience of Camellia, I fully admit I wasn’t moved personally by the allure of the love interest. I’ve always preferred the slow burn, so I’m awaiting the development of Camellia’s relationship with someone else.

Clayton’s writing is delicious, her story unique, and her commentary on beauty poignant. If you haven’t picked up The Belles yet, I encourage you to do so.