“Fuck our legacy,” she said. “Demeine is worth more than our legacy. Our people are worth sacrifice.”
I saw this on a queer rep book list, and made a note to pick it up. Then I found it on an aro or ace spec list, and I had to have it immediately. When I got accepted for an ARC off Netgalley, I actually squealed a little.
Rating: 5 stars!
Thanks to Netgalley and SOURCEBOOKS Fire for a review copy of this book.
Read me for the:
- Queer rep, queer rep EVERYWHERE
- Bi-ace MC, trans and non-binary side characters
- Princess and the pauper style life switch
- Rebellion that feels real and dangerous
- Incredibly relevant allegory
Emilie des Marais is a Comtess more comfortable with a surgical needle than an embroidery one. She’s desperate to leave her noble roots behind and serve her country as a physician – a job her mother, and society, deems far too gruesome for her. Annette Boucher is a nobody. Her family overwork her, everyone else overlooks her. It seems like her dreams of escaping home and becoming trained in magic seem impossible until a strange, rich, noble girl offers her an unlikely deal.
Emilie and Annette swap lives. Annette takes Emilie’s name, and with it her enrolment to a prestigious finishing school where she will finally be trained in the art of divination and scrying. Emilie signs up to be a physician’s assistant, using her magic to save lives.
Their game turns dangerous as their country starts a pointless, frivolous, war, and both girls must decide what risks they are willing to take to save a rebellion – and their nation.
What did I think?
This book felt incredibly relevant in moments. Considering it’s very much historical fantasy, the societal power struggles could have been drawn word for word from current events. It made the plot even more impactful, and added so many depths to it that I’ve been hungering to re-read it since I finished the last page. Reading all of my saved quotes for this review made me want to read it all over again (and honestly I’d saved dozens of quotes, so choosing one or two was nearly impossible, I even broke my rule for how many I use in a review). I’m absolutely certain that this is one of those books that will only get better the more times I read it, and once my TBR has been wrangled, I’m going to pick it back up again.
I’m usually a very fast reader, but I savoured this one. Sometimes I felt a little slowed down by all the names. I haven’t read a lot of historical fiction, it’s a genre I’ve only recently fallen in love with. Belle Révolte isn’t actually historical fiction, it’s definitely fantasy, but it has that historical fantasy air to in the way that the characters and settings are described. It felt very French revolution to me, which I adored, but it also meant that everyone had a million titles and that slowed me down as I occasionally got confused between character names. This was definitely a me thing and not a book thing, and I figured it out once I plugged my brain in. I will say that I found the end a smidge rushed. It felt like there was a lot of time and detail put into the beginning of the book and then suddenly it was over and done with all at once. The pacing was generally good, I just could have had another ten or twenty pages during the final act, rather than hitting ‘the end’ so abruptly.
What a privilege we nobles had to decide to simply not deal with politics when they so rarely affected us poorly.
Privilege and how it’s used is a huge theme throughout the book. It seemed to leap off every page for me, and I absolutely loved that. It didn’t feel lecture-y, it was threaded into every page of the story beautifully. Emilie was hugely, hugely privileged. She’s a comtess, rich and well-educated and off to study at a highly prestigious school. It’s not what she wants, but that doesn’t send her into the YA-character trap of being ungrateful for her opportunities and dismissing the crazy amount of privilege she has. Instead, Emilie spends the entire book acknowledging her privilege and the way that it has blinded her:
It was as if, because of my upbringing, I had been staring out at the dark world from a brightly lit room. I couldn’t see what was right in front of me because of the privilege of affording candles.
It was really motivating to see Emilie acknowledging her privilege and Annette, using Emilie’s name and status, mobilising it. Annette used Emilie’s family money and status with absolutely no regret to tackle aspects of inequality that she was able to impact, like pay for workers and lower-class members of society, and ultimately to support the rebellion. She is willing to cut ties without mercy if her friends won’t stand up for what’s right and I love her. Annette Boucher would eat the rich and I would help her.
They’re not selfless all the way through, and I’m glad for that. Both girls developed so authentically and beautifully. Initially, Emilie wants to be a hero. She wants people to know her name. Annette, always told she couldn’t, wants to revenge-succeed and prove them wrong. It’s completely authentic YA selfishness. I spent most of my teenage years daydreaming about fame and renown, so I can’t throw stones. By the end of their character arcs, they’re seeing a picture bigger than themselves and acting as part of a larger motion. They want to do good, instead of be known for good, and it’s a shift that makes them so empowering to read about. I want to be like Annette and Emilie.
The greater picture they become part of is that rebellion against the absolutely monstrous monarchy. But Belle Révolte doesn’t hide behind safety nets and protect characters from death. It doesn’t hide the realities of conflict against a power far greater than your own. Innocents die, and they die in miserable ways. Characters you will absolutely love are martyred, and it’s all done with complete self-awareness. To win a war, good people have to die, and everyone in the rebellion was willing to give up everything to save their nation. The high-stakes rebellion was so tense to read, especially in the early sections of the book where I didn’t know who the girls could trust any better than they did, so every time they revealed their allegiances my heart was in my throat wondering if they were making a mistake in telling the truth. It was intense.
The representation in this book hit me like a brick. I knew it had ace-spec rep, so I was waiting for that, but I wasn’t expecting the power the scene had. I’m aro, not ace, but I always say they’re sibling-sexualities. When one of the characters described her asexuality, it was done in a way that I’d never seen before. I won’t spoil the specific way it’s described, but I’ve borrowed Linsey Miller’s beautiful words since to explain my aromanticism to people who don’t quite understand it. It’s described in a way that completely rejects the idea that aro/ace-spec people are ‘missing’ or ‘broken’, and it was so beautiful I immediately tracked down my ace-spec best friend to read her the passage. I can’t personally speak to the trans-rep, but it felt respectful from an outside perspective and it wasn’t used as a plot twist (I fucking hate that) while still highlighting how hard it is to come out and how transitioning isn’t the end of coming out for a lot of people. There were just queer girls and queer boys everywhere and I was so happy to see all of them.
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