Belle Révolte by Linsey Miller
Emilie des Marais is more at home holding scalpels than embroidery needles and is desperate to escape her noble roots to serve her country as a physician. But society dictates a noble lady cannot perform such gruesome work.
Annette Boucher, overlooked and overworked by her family, wants more from life than her humble beginnings and is desperate to be trained in magic. So when a strange noble girl offers Annette the chance of a lifetime, she accepts.
Emilie and Annette swap lives—Annette attends finishing school as a noble lady to be trained in the ways of divination, while Emilie enrolls to be a physician’s assistant, using her natural magical talent to save lives.
But when their nation instigates a frivolous war, Emilie and Annette must work together to help the rebellion end a war that is based on lies.
“Power demands sacrifice.”
In this retelling of The Prince and the Pauper, set in the fantasy France country of Demeine, two types of magic bolster the land. The noonday arts, used for war and healing alike, are wielded by powerful men. Meanwhile, the midnight arts, focused on illusions and divination, are the domain of Demeine’s graceful, composed women. It’s a rigid division, with little room for deviation.
And Emilie des Marais intends to break it entirely.
The equivalent of the classic story’s prince, she swaps places with Annette Boucher, the story’s pauper. As Emilie goes off to become a physician, studying the noonday arts she adores, Annette finds herself in Emilie’s place at a finishing school steeped in the midnight arts, her one true passion. And in their respective new places, they discover that nothing in Demeine, least of all power and its roots, is what it seems.
Belle Révolte is a story about the costs of power and change.
From the first pages, I adored the looming conclusion: Demeine’s system was a broken one, and needed to change entirely. Sure, it’s frustrating to see characters so stuck in their rigid binaries, but that only serves to make Emilie and Annette more likable, because they dare to challenge the norm. Emilie, brusque and efficient, wants to prove that a woman can master the masculine noonday arts. She has a gift for healing, a magic of unfathomable depth, and no desire to waste it on illusions. Instead, she aims to change the world. Maybe even break it.
Meanwhile, sweet Annette takes the chance to swap with Emilie, sensing a chance at freedom. Her family cares little for her, and she faces a future as a physician’s hack if she doesn’t go, where a noonday artist will bleed her dry of magic until she dies painfully young, withered to a husk. At the finishing school Emilie was meant to attend, she can embrace her gift for the midnight arts and become the truest Annette she’s ever been, if only under another name.
Add in a delightful supporting cast with sharp wit and soft words, and you end up with brilliant characters. I loved the relationships that formed, platonic and romantic alike, and got a hefty dose of so many tropes, with the added bonus of casual queerness. Friends to lovers, but make it sapphic? Check. Enemies to lovers, with a trans love interest and a competitive streak? You bet. Sapphic friends leading a revolution via the ever classic “be gay do crimes” model? In the book, 100%.
And all the while, these characters are faced with what it’s going to cost them to survive the looming war. It makes for excellent conflict, and a great time wondering when everything is going to come to a head, because you know it must.
Where Belle Révolte stumbles, though, is in its pacing.
Funny enough, I had a similar issue with Linsey Miller’s debut duology. Though I love the characters both here and in Mask of Shadows, I felt the pacing was breakneck in both cases. Had Belle Révolte been a duology, I think we could have gotten even more out of the characters. I especially wanted more from Laurence and Estrel, the bickering rival mentors, but more time and development would have been a boon to everyone. As it is, however, the plot speeds along, tumbling towards greater and greater climaxes. As a result, I didn’t get as attached to characters I think I should have, and I had to spend far too much time keeping the points of political intrigue straight in my head.
It didn’t lessen my enjoyment of the book too much (after all, I still finished it), but it did have an impact nonetheless. While I’m a little more forgiving of complication in adult fiction, I end up frustrated by YA that tries to do too much at once. And in this case, Belle Révolte simply tried to do too much too fast.
All the same, I recommend it for readers seeking fantasy standalones!
As a retelling of a familiar story, it has a sense of comfort to it. You know that some elements will be predictable, like the eventual discovery of the girls’ swap. But the how is what matters. How the story unfolds. How the story changes. And at the end of the day, you’re not waiting for a conclusion still a year distant.
Couple that with Linsey Miller’s excellent casual queerness, and characters with concrete, vibrant goals, and you end up with an engaging fantasy on your hands, and hope for change.
And if you’re the sort who likes to modify their books, good news! Belle Révolte lends itself nicely to sprayed edges. Specifically, it looks stunning in gold. I won an ARC from Linsey Miller painted this way (though this review is based off the final copy I pre-ordered), and it is superb. Learn how to paint your books, folks. If you’re in quarantine, now’s as good a time as any. Why not make your shelves extra colorful?
CW: loss of a loved one, gore, body horror, medical scenes, graphic injury, animal death, violence