The most interesting thing about the fantasy of manners sub-genre is how the world delineates those who belong, and those who don’t, and this is often the center of conflict for the love-interest couple. Now, of course, not all fantasy of manners stories have a major love interest, but there is an important relationship that is the focus of the story, otherwise we wouldn’t have the sub-genre itself. In The Beautiful Ones, the haves–in the country of Levrene, and particularly the fashionable city of Loisail–are the Beautiful Ones themselves, those with money and social standing, who decide what is fashionable, what is proper, and what is interesting.
Social customs and societal expectations in this novel are drawn from many European analogs in the 17th through 19th centuries and have at their center both the restrictions of patriarchy and the lure of curiosity that often crop up in Victorian literature. Hector Auvray, the love interest, is a performer, one who uses his talent with telekinesis to improve his social standing. He is able to do this in part because he is a man, and his efforts fall under the guise of ambition and vigorous effort prized in the culture of Loisail.
The Beautiful Ones finds its way out from under its own reliance on well-known fantasy romance tropes in its vigorous interrogation of the patriarchal leanings of its society and, in turn, our own. The growth of its characters, particularly Nina and Valerie, is satisfying, and though much of the plot could be intuited from the set up, the way in which Moreno-Garcia follows through with her characters and doesn’t allow them to sink under their own weight is what makes this novel not just readable, but highly enjoyable, from beginning to end.
The juxtaposition of two main characters who share the same telekinetic talent, but belong to different genders, creates a lens through which to understand just how much the artificiality of society pushes people in one direction or the other for purely arbitrary reasons. While Nina may be born with admittance to the class of the Beautiful Ones because of her family’s money and position it is, in the end, her willingness to condition herself to the behaviors expected of a woman of that class that arbitrates her belonging to that group. While Hector is able to use its standard sets of behaviors as a guidebook to entry, where getting a certain number of rules correct gives him a way in, Nina can much more quickly be tossed out for breaking even one rule. The human desire to belong, as well as to be free, motivates The Beautiful Ones on a deep level, leaving the reader with a lot to think about at the end.
This novel explores the depths of emotion and motivation to which people can sink, while holding onto a foundational joy and love of life that comes across as genuine, rather than sentimental. Moreno-Garcia’s writing is colorful and evocative of a world in which appearance and display are paramount. There are some lovely scenes in which old or abandoned places not only contrast beautifully with this magpie culture she’s created, but also create a tension between antiquity and modernity that, rather than being resolved by the end, linger on the palate for a long while after finishing this novel.