As its Black history month, I wanted to write only reviews of black speculative fiction. This partially because in the last two or three years, science fiction and fantasy’s crisis of race has become more apparent. Although I only joined the science fiction community in relatively recent years, I know that discussions of race have been part of SFF’s slowly growing presence on the internet. SFF’s issues specifically with blackness have not always been so openly discussed. When Fireside Fiction published its Black Spec Fic report in early 2017, I was horrified to find out that only 2.9% of the published science fiction community that published stories in 2016 were black . That’s not just a bad number — its a terrible number.
I’m a white cis lesbian. As Clayton says: no amount of “wokeness” will allow me to decode the nuances of this novel. It is, moreover, not my place to take up space to talk about this novel when there are black reviewers out there far more deserving.
So, instead of posting a review, I’m going to do a quick note on this book.
I wish I had seen more discussion of how this book handled queerness before I read it. This book engages with the Bury Your Gays trope. I started reading this book totally unaware of how this book was going to use this trope, and I wish I had been warned.
The Belles is a book about suffering, pain and cruelty disguised as a book rich with fashion, food and colors. The lavish descriptions, emphasis on physical appearances and adoration of aesthetics were fascinating. The world-building was immaculate. And, while Clayton clearly tried to set up a fictional world in which queerness was normalized, she didn’t quite manage to execute her vision. Two sapphic characters are either publicly ridiculed for their queerness — Camille finds old newspaper articles which mock the Queen for her preference of her female lover over the king, and imply her inability to have a child is a moral failing — or murdered. The third sapphic character is the villain.
As a caveat, this is also a world where slavery is normalized. Perhaps the surface level of “queerness is okay,” only to be dismissed and ridiculed in a more complex system, was part of Clayton’s worldbuilding. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was. I just invite queer readers to approach this with caution.