The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

In a world where Beauty reigns, what is the cost of being yourself?

Cover of The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

I love books where I have absolutely no clue what will happen next. There is no ability to create expectations for this book, because I have never read anything like it. It starts like a traditional YA with an inventive twist, then morphs through every other genre: romance, thriller, sci-fi, horror. You can find elements of everything from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to Sarah Pinborough’s Behind Her Eyes to Sleeping Beauty by the Brothers Grimm, with a touch of Disney brushed in. Now that I think of it, when I conjure the world of Orleans in my mind, I see it in the lovely overly-vivid painted scenery of Disney movies of the forties. The dramatic imagery and bright descriptions of the background, but most of all the people, enlivens an already thrilling story.

What is the story? In the world of Orleans, the goddess of Beauty gives (to the Belles) and takes (from everyone else). The Belles, a select group blessed with the ability to bestow physical characteristics, help maintain the perfection demanded by the citizens and their rulers. It demands precision and consummate attention and faultless purity. Camellia Beaureguard works to achieve all that she has ever wanted and create new standards of Beauty, but the ideal of the palace is not what it seems.

My one criticism is that the pacing changes dramatically halfway through the book, and feels like a rush to the finish. I would have liked more room for the story to breathe at the end, to get more of a feel for the events. Also, while queer characters definitely exist in this world, it feels like they are at times not given the space/attention/respect I would expect.

This book demands attention. It is definitely not for everyone, especially those looking for a light read based on the cover description. However, I am excited to find out what happens next.

CW for the book itself: body image, gore, assault, sexual assault

Dread Nation & Deathless Divide by Justina Ireland

I read Dread Nation when it came out in 2018 entirely by chance. I had seen it mentioned by someone on Twitter and bought it on a whim. From the first line, I was hooked. The prologue sets up the story with such flavor and cohesion, you fall into the world and it never lets go. I truly have never stopped thinking about this book since my first reading.

And then Deathless Divide just gets better.

The backstory is that at The Battle of Gettysburg, the dead rise. I found this especially impactful, having visited the Gettysburg Battlefield multiple times. It is hard to describe just how big the actual field of battle was without standing on the sweeping hills. Over three days around FIFTY THOUSAND people perished. Fields full of fallen soldiers, smoke on the wind, the smell and sound and scene…and then they all rise and turn on their injured and exhausted comrades. The war immediately turns into one of living versus dead which has no end in sight.

However, neither the zombies nor the war nor the usual elite are the focus of this story. Instead, Ireland tells the story of Jane, a teenager training to be an Attendant – a Negro training to both protect and serve a white woman in the South. Racial politics are examined and judged through a story combining history and horror, woven together with unforgettable characters and relationships that you can’t help but wish were forged in a happier landscape.

Deathless Divide adds the perspective of Katharine, a fellow Attendant, and travels across America. The story not only explores what might have happened if the dead had risen during this crisis point in US history, but also includes characters from almost every background, race, sexuality, gender, and more. Ireland deftly handles the true variety of human experience, each character showcasing a new viewpoint, while never allowing the story to be overshadowed. It is a book that I continue to think about, especially right now as the world investigates biases on more intense levels each day.

I recommend this book to anyone looking for a fresh perspective, an investigation into how we got where we are, or simply a delightful zombie story told from another point-of-view.

Read it, and let me know what you think.

Have a lovely day,