I got this as a wish granted on Net Galley - for which I thank the publisher. I'm not normally a fan of novels that obsess over looks and fashion, because those things are as shallow as the people who focus on them to the exclusion of all else, but this one was more of a dystopian novel where beauty was a magical power given to some to bestow onto others. In fact, it was almost a weapon.
This interested me initially, but by the time I was about three-fifths through the novel, I became thoroughly disappointed as I learned this was essentially no different from any other of the LCD young adult novels I've read and the author was in fact betraying her own premise. Instead of being different, the novel was just the same, and employed the same tropes and clichés, as all the other poor YA novels, the most egregious of which was the triangle between the first person narrator, a 'bad' boy, and a 'good' boy, and it was truly nauseating to read.
In very general terms, the novel was set in a quite well-realized world, with some beautiful writing and elegant descriptive prose, but the more I read, the more this was sadly let-down by some glaring holes in the logic, and some truly nonsensical and clunky inventions. The novel was also far too long. This was caused by a rambling tone in which everything took forever to get underway. This wasn't so bad in the early pages, but the more I read, the less I wanted to be swamped with yet more descriptive prose as another page went by with literally nothing happening unless you count strutting, and preening and posing as events.
Additionally, there is only so much mystery and so many unanswered questions you can heap upon your reader before your reader starts to suffocate, and you need to start offering answers - or at least look like you're about to do so - but by sixty percent in, there continued to be questions, and not an answer in sight. This was deeply disappointing and made me feel, since this is the start of a series, that no real answers would be forthcoming until the final volume of the trilogy or whatever this ends up being.
At one point early in the reading, I'd been prepared to suggest that there's a raft of YA writers who seriously need to read a few books like this before they write any more of their own, but I changed my mind quite quickly. I know this is an ARC, and so is unaccountably sent out for review with no guarantees and insufficient vetting, but this author has a masters, and some of the issues I came across made me despair for our education system. And they had nothing to do with it being an "uncorrected proof" and everything to do with being poor writing or poor word choices by someone who should know better.
While I readily acknowledge that language is a dynamic thing, especially in this era of sound-bites and texting, I think there are some things which didn't ought to change so readily! How many times have I read an author (particularly in YA writing) using 'bicep' (as this one does) when the term is biceps? There is no excuse for this, not even the ever-convenient UPE (uncorrected proof excuse).!
Chaise longue is dyslexically rendered into 'chaise lounge'. Now I have come to grudgingly accept this as an Americanism which isn't going away, and normally I would just roll my eyes and read on, but here, in a novel which is explicitly set in a heavily French-accented milieu, I found it inexplicable that the author should resort to the lazy Americanism instead of the French original!
In another instance combining poor writing and bad French, I read what was supposedly a note from Camellia's mother in which she instructed her in the use of a magic mirror (more on the 'borrowing' habits of the author later!), "Prick your beautiful little finger and drop the blood onto the handle, and it will show you what you need to see. I love you, ma petit."
The first problem with this is that it read so false to me to suggest that Camellia's mom would write "beautiful little finger". It was quite literally sickening to read, and it felt completely unrealistic. Maybe there are some idiot moms who would write such flowery prose like this while trying to convey something of vital importance to their daughter, but it made me laugh because it was so bad.
It was not as bad as the wrong-gender French in a novel set in a French-flavored world. 'Petit' is masculine. It goes with mon as in: mon petit. The phrase the author needed here (since the message was addressed to her daughter) was the feminine: 'ma petite'.
I've never seen fleur-de-lis rendered as fleur-delis, which makes it sound like the name of a sandwich shop! After consulting this same novel in Bluefire Reader though, I discovered that it had been rendered correctly as fleur-de-lis, and it was Amazon's crappy Kindle app which had randomly deleted hyphens (and spaces, I discovered as I read on), so this was not the author's fault at all, except in that she and the publisher had placed far too much faith in Amazon not to mangle their hard work. Amazon had, with its usual disregard for literature, once again let them down. This is merely one reason why I have neither time nor patience for Amazon, and partly why I quit posting reviews on Goodreads, Amazon's unholy-owned tributary.
The story itself began as an interesting one. In the fictional Kingdom of Orléans, a tiny subset of young females, known as Belles have special powers known as Arcana. In this story, the Belles, only six of them, are considered sisters even though they are unrelated, and they all adopt the same last name: Beauregard. The first names of the other five are: Ambrosia, Edelweiss, Hana, Padma, and Valeria. I saw a writing opportunity here which was badly wasted. More on this later.
Camellia is the sixth girl and the first person narrator. She bears the name of a flower, but it's an Asian flower, so why she had that name in a French-influenced novel, I do not know. She does go by Camille, but this name, storied as it is in history and literature, has nothing to do with the name of the flower (which is after a guy named Kamel! LOL!). This is why names are important, so this whole naming thing was a bit confused in this novel.
This was one of many things which started tripping-up the world-building for me. To me, names mean things and far too many authors ignore that in their blinkered rush to choose either a trope name, or an overly-exotic name for their character. In this case I wondered if the author had chosen the name like I would do, to represent something, since Camellia is known for the tea which can be made from the leaves, and the oil which can be pressed from its seeds. I guess I'll never know! For me though, I could not hear that name without thinking of a camel which, and this is just a wild guess, is probably not what the author had intended.
On the brighter side, the first person voice wasn't awfully bad in this novel for which the author has my sincerest thanks. I've read some truly horrendously-written first person voice novels. Why authors, particularly in the YA world, are so sheep-like in their addiction to this voice is a mystery to me since it's so limiting and so fake. I guess I'm just going to have to quit reading any YA novel told in first person if I am to escape it.
Anyway, each of these six girls has within her some sort of ill-defined blood-power, which evidently resides in proteins they get from leeches, which begs the question as to why anyone cannot slap a leech on themselves and get the power. We're told the girls are born to be Belles, but we never learn how or why that is so, or why there are so few of them. And why only girls? Maybe this comes to light in a future volume. Although it's denied that these girls perform magic, this is exactly what they do, employing blood-magic to transform people's physical appearance.
This began a host of unanswered questions notwithstanding the world-building and in the end, the weight of all these loose threads began to drag the story down for me. For example, on the one hand science seems to be quite advanced in this nation (they know what proteins are), but there's no electricity to be had. We're supposed to believe that Belles are celebrated and revered almost to the point of being gods, but on the other hand, they're universally treated like slaves. The belles are supposed to be experts in how to mold people, literally, into personifications of gorgeous, yet these people treat them like dirt and order them around, telling them what to do instead of allowing the Belles to do their job. None of this made any sense at all to me.
These powers they have come in three "flavors" or forms: age, aura, and manner, but later there's a hint, which may be just a rumor, that there is a fourth form. This hidden fourth power is straight out of Richelle Mead's Vampire Academy.
These powers enable the girls to physically transform other citizens who are known as 'gris' (the French word for gray), and who are dismissed as plain and even ugly, into what is considered the epitome of beauty. The ideas here seem perhaps to have been borrowed from the citizens of Panem, as depicted in Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy, but whereas the extravagant beauty (so-called!) in Panem was merely a backdrop, here it takes center stage. There are other ideas borrowed from Hunger Games such as the 'post-balloons' which deliver items much like the parachutes delivered gifts to the competitors in Collins's trilogy.
Camellia is one of the six finalists for a position at the royal court. It's her lifelong dream since her mom held that same position, which lasts, inexplicably, only for a year. She travels with her competing 'sisters', who while they sometimes fight and snipe at each other, are like family, but only one of these Belles can take the coveted royal position.
We know it's going to be Camellia, since she's the one narrating the story in first person and you can't tell the reader what's going on if that first person narrator isn't present - unless you want to admit your poor choice of voice and switch to third person periodically, or have major info-dumps to bring the main character up to date about things which happen out of her ken. Thus the weakness of this voice.
What made me truly start feeling nauseous in this novel though, was the introduction of your standard love triangle. I had, when I began reading this, not only hoped, but also genuinely believed that here was an author who was above this sort of cheap shot. Consider my disappointment then when I saw her launch with gay abandon into proving that even she had no qualms about descending to the level of hack YA writers when it comes to asserting that every woman desperately needs to be validated by, in this case, not one man, but two.
The reason I found this so totally obnoxious here is that the whole basis of this book, so I'd been led to understand, was that it was ultimately to be an indictment of the shallowness of the beauty and fashion industries which are an appalling bane on the lives of women, and particularly young women, everywhere. These women are told that unless they're rail-thin and gorgeous, they're pretty much useless and have nothing to look forward to. That's what fashion and cosmetics are all about: telling you that your face is ugly and must be disguised if not covered with a beauty mask, and your clothes are trash and must be replaced regularly with these which we will happily sell to you, assuming you can lose enough weight to fit into them.
The sad fact is that nowhere did I see any evidence of any indictment. Even if that is still to come though, say in volume two or three, or even if it curiously took place upon the very page after I quit reading this novel, my question is: how is it to the benefit of young women (talking of getting the skinny) to rail at the cosmetic industry on the one hand whilst simultaneously undermining their independence by asserting confidently that your YA female is utterly worthless unless some guy adores her? It was sick quite frankly, hypocritical at best, and a sorry betrayal of women everywhere at worst, because here. the author is telling us that Camellia is so comprehensively useless that she needs male validation.
These purveyors of barefoot, pregnant, and in the bitchin' kitchen were Rémy the studly, upright bodyguard, and Auguste, the standard trope YA bad boy. As for Rémy, there was no reason whatsoever for his existence. There's no threat to Camellia, unless you consider someone putting old rose petals in her bathroom to actually endanger her life. So why does she need a permanent 24/7 personal bodyguard - except of course to put her into close proximity to one third of the triangle?
This was done so clunkily that it was truly pathetic. I mean it was farcical in the extreme. Poor Rémy never even gets to sleep - I am not kidding - he's on the job all day and night every day and every night. It was absurd. And how did his sisters ever get into the palace? Do they have a 'bring your sister to work day' for palace guards? The writing had gone from sublime to substandard at this point.
Auguste was even less explicable than was Rémy. As is tediously trope in this lower class of novel, Auguste shows up out of the blue, putting Camellia in danger, having no respect whatsoever for her, and being far too 'chummy' and familiar. In what is the vomit-inducing trope for these novels, she does not reject him out of hand as anyone in her position actually would were the story true to its roots and framework. Instead, she gets the hots for him immediately. Evidently the camel is in estrous. All-bluster continues to stalk the camel - and yes, that's exactly what it is, but the author wants us somehow to think this is playful flirting and courtship. Well there's a humongous bot-fly in that stodgy ointment: he's one of the three suitors for the princess.
Yes, there are guys in real life like Auguste, so this was not the problem. The problem was Camellia's reacting like a bitch in heat to his advances. It was her complete lack of not only morals and propriety, but her total disregard for others. Despite the fact that she knows he's Sofia's suitor, she sees absolutely nothing wrong, neither in his behavior nor in her own! If this tells me anything about her, it's that she's a moron and certainly not someone worth knowing. much less reading a whole series about.
Despite the fact that she could get fired for associating with him, Camellia is so profoundly stupid that she just swallows everything Auguste says. She purposefully flirts with him when she's not endlessly describing what are evidently Queen Alexandra Birdwing butterflies stomping around in her stomach.
The biggest fail though was that on one occasion, the stalwart Rémy was right there with her, her bodyguard, yet he did nothing whatsoever to break-up her flirting with Auguste. He's guarding her because of dead roses, yet here is a guy hitting on her right in front of him - a guy he doesn't know, and one who could be concealing a knife, yet he says not a word. That's how completely useless he is. even if the guy was not a threat to her life, he is a threat to her career and reputation. Rémy cares nothing for that? The name derives from a Latin word meaning oar, so it's hardly surprising Camellia's up the creek without a paddle.
Auguste is quite literally nothing save overly familiar and worse, controlling, and comes with not a single thing to recommend him as a viable suitor for Camellia, let alone for Sofia, yet never once does a single thought enter her pretty little head that what she is doing is not only mean to Sofia, but also self-destructive to her own career aspirations. Never once does any thought along these lines enter her empty head! That's how clueless a character she truly is, so maybe I was wrong: maybe she's one of the tiny minority of co-dependent women who actually do need a couple of guys to validate her.
This is entirely the wrong lesson to teach young women: that your ideal lover is a guy who has no respect for women, who never balks at risking Camellia's job or reputation, or at getting her into trouble, who is controlling, and who has no respect for the fact that he is potentially betrothed to Camellia's employer, The fact that this author is, on the one hand supposedly calling-out the cosmetics industry, yet on the other, is actively undermining the independence and self-determination of women is a disgrace, and I have no desire whatsoever to read any more of this novel or to read anything else by this author. I cannot recommend this by any measure.
If the author had been serious about her writing, and really wanted to make a go of this, then what she ought to have done is kept it to a single volume, told it in third person, and switched between the perspectives of all six Belles. That, right there, would have been a story worth reading, but instead all we got was a silly little palace love triangle about a vacuous girl, and it's a story that has already been done to death a billion times over.