Round I, Bracket XVI: The Belles vs. Girls of Paper and Fire

The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton

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.

Set in a futuristic Orléans where beauty is everything, author Dhonielle Clayton’s world-building is vivid and lush and will immediately transport you to the world she’s created. Orléans is filled with imagery that is layered and grows as the story unfolds, which works as a great juxtaposition to the underlying darkness surrounding The Belles. Clayton has a way of diverting attention away from what is really happening in the city by distracting both the characters and readers with lavish parties and gorgeous people so as not to question what’s happening behind palace walls. In the first few chapters, though, it got so heavy handed with descriptions and history in order to set the scene that it not only interrupted the pacing, but one began to lose sense of the world and key plot points. Luckily the story picked up significantly once Clayton found her rhythm and readers were able to fully submerge themselves in the multifaceted mystery she created.

Further elevating the story is Clayton’s cast of richly developed and flawed characters. Main protagonist Camellia Beauregard is by no means perfect, but her growth as a person is seen over the course of the book and we begin to better understand her decision-making process, as well as the moral dilemmas she’s constantly faced with. The reader is also given glimpses of the other Belles’ personalities through their correspondence with Camellia. They were all so charming and diverse that it would have been nice to have spent more time with them in the beginning to strengthen them as characters and show their familial bond. The one character Clayton did focus on developing was Princess Sophia; she wrote her so perfectly vile and cruel that not only were the characters reacting to her, but the reader as well. She was truly the worst and it worked.

Even as twisted as Princess Sophia was, the true evil hidden is the disturbing fascination and importance placed on beauty. The cost to which people go to to achieve beauty is limitless — so much so that they’re willing to risk their lives for it. The worst part of it all is that at the end of the day, they remained unfulfilled and empty no matter how beautiful they may be. Gone are the people they once were and all that’s left is a plastic and superficial version of themselves. In a time when social media and beauty standards are so all encompassing, The Belles addresses these issues in a thought-provoking manner that will serve as great conversation starters. Clayton guides the reader to understanding the dangers behind placing such importance on beauty and giving society the power to dictate how we should look without sounding preachy.

If there had to be a flaw though, it would be the romance. It not only lacked any depth and purpose, but stalled the story every time. Whenever Camillia began to find her voice, that relationship set her back. There was never any point to it and was so obviously inserted just for romance’s sake, that it became annoying — romance isn’t always necessary to make a story work. The Belles is such a well written and developed book that anyone who enjoys fantasies and mysteries would enjoy. Not only that, but it’s a book with a powerful message of acceptance and self-love that anyone can get behind.

Read A-Likes:
The Queen’s Rising by Rebecca Ross
Little White Lies by Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most cruel.

But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.

In this lush fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards still haunts her. Now, the guards are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after–the girl whose golden eyes have piqued the king’s interest.

Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable–she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.

TW: violence and sexual abuse.

Through her own experience growing up in Malaysia and knowledge of Asian mythology, author Natasha Ngan weaves a tale of oppression and abuse set alongside a rich fantasy world not quite seen in recent times. The world Ngan creates is heavily inspired by her Malaysian upbringing and together with her powerful writing, transports readers into this environment of riches and wonder. To contrast the beauty of the palace, Ngan doesn’t shy away from describing impoverished areas and the suffering its people face on a daily basis. While the world Ngan creates isn’t real, the reality of it is and something many might be familiar with.

However, even though Ngan is a great storyteller, she jam packs too much imagery and description into the story, causing it to lag; Girls of Paper and Fire doesn’t pick up its pace until nearly 2/3 of the way in. The story becomes repetitive and while the mundane lives the characters live is evident, it didn’t need to be dragged out for a third of the book for us to understand the tragedy of it. It takes entirely too long for much of anything to happen and leaves the reader wondering if the book is going anywhere. Ngan was too worried with building her world and creating its complicated cast system that her storyline suffered and the climax felt rushed. The book could have easily benefitted with losing about 100 pages.

As a protagonist, Lei demonstrated strength, fear, and vulnerability with no reservations or apologies. She beautifully embodied the complexities behind all of her actions and reasons why her choices held such weight. You could feel her pains and frustrations, as well as understanding of how the consequences from her decisions weren’t just hers to bear. Not only that, but readers went on a journey of self-realization with her when he came to come to terms with who she was and the emotions she felt towards fellow Paper girl Wren. Lei’s character arc was profound and complicated, but important.

The colorful cast of Paper girls around Lei lacked development though. We caught glimpses of their personalities and personal journeys, but it left me wanting more. At the core of everything going on was the relationship between them. The book shined when they all came together to listen, support, and fight for each other. It wasn’t just Lei’s story, but all of theirs and we never got it. Ngan had complex and diverse characters who came from different backgrounds, so it was disappointing to see a lack of development and follow-through with them. The saving grace was Lei’s evolving relationship with Wren. It was great that while she was supportive of Lei, she had her own issues to deal with that were bigger than them; it was refreshing to see such independence in not just female characters, but in a romantic relationship.

Above all else, Girls of Paper and Fire is a book about identity, self-discovery, sexual abuse, and more. It tackles head on how the abuse of power and rampant misogyny can easily lead a community into believing the justification and sexual abuse of women is valid and acceptable. Women are viewed as less than men and are given no rights. Ngan doesn’t shy away from these issues or tiptoes around them, but calls them for what they are. It was deeply moving to see how these women not only faced their abuse, but found different ways to begin the healing process in order to be able to survive it. It’s also important to note that there was a trigger warning in the beginning and resources in the end for anyone who might need them and to prepare readers on what to expect when picking up this book.

Girls of Paper and Fire is meant for mature readers who not only love a good fantasy, but diverse group of characters navigating social constructs and female empowerment. Readers who may have dealt with some form of trauma, especially sexual abuse, or are curious about the subject matter would enjoy the book and use it to spark a conversation.

Read A-Likes:
The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
Blanca and Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore

The Winner: The belles by Dhonielle Clayton

While both books are amazing within their own right, in the end, The Belles claims victory. Inevitably, the pacing and more immediate grab of the reader’s attention is what gives The Belles the edge. Girls of Paper and Fire takes entirely too long to get to its point and is redundant for over 100 pages. While The Belles also has pacing issues, Clayton finds her footing a little sooner in order to get to the story quicker. The allure of the mystery surrounding The Belles makes it a page turner and will keep teens easily engaged. Girls is not as accessible to readers and will unfortunately lose them early on with its lack of direction. It’s heartbreaking because the themes and issues of Girls is a breath of fresh air in teen fiction, but Ngan struggles to find her rhythm and with it, her readers.

Marion Olea is the Teen Librarian at the Northlake Public Library District. Her hobbies include traveling, board gaming, and submerging herself in all things pop culture.

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3 thoughts on “Round I, Bracket XVI: The Belles vs. Girls of Paper and Fire

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