You know I’m always ready to step up to the plate for Asian literature and Asian authors. So as soon as I heard that Girls of Paper and Fire was a thing, you can bet I wanted to get my hands on it. I actually mentioned this title in my list 2018 Releases I Want to Buy and when Shealea of That Bookshelf Bitch got an ARC that she very gamely agreed to lend to me, I was just over the moon!
Let me tell you, Girls of Paper and Fire did not disappoint.
I tried to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, but tread cautiously!
Title: Girls of Paper and Fire
Author: Natasha Ngan
Genre: Fantasy, High Fantasy
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.
Trigger Warnings: Rape, violence, graphic injury, animal death, implied sexual content, discrimination, homophobia.
☕ Quotes ☕
“I don’t want an easy life. I want a meaningful one.”
“If this is going to be my fate, I’m going to walk into it on my own two feet.”
“We might be Paper Girls, easily torn and written upon. The very title we’re given suggests that we are blank, waiting to be filled. But what the Demon King and his court do not understand is that paper is flammable. And there is a fire catching among us.”
☕ Plot ☕
Come on, how intriguing is that summary? When I first saw this described on Twitter as being like the story of the Minotaur but with two of the sacrificial girls falling in love with each other, I just knew this was going to be a doozy. And Natasha Ngan did not disappoint. Drawing heavily from Chinese and Malaysian mythology, folklore, and customs, Girls of Paper and Fire is definitely not your typical fantasy.
While it follows a familiar and well-trodden formula – that of a chosen one who receives secret, magical training and is the last of their kind struggling to overthrow an evil despot – Girls of Paper and Fire adds its own unique twist to the trope. The story is told from the point of view of Lei, an immensely ordinary young girl, special only because her eyes are the same color as a demon’s. Other than, however, there is nothing remarkable at all about her. Still, the color of her eyes is unusual enough that she attracts attention from the king, and while there, falls in love with another of the king’s harem girls, Wren, who seems to be hiding a secret. Lei’s discovery of that secret results in her being enmeshed in a dangerous plot that could possibly change the kingdom as she knows it, and cost Lei everything she holds dear.
The handling of the romance, too, is utterly superb. Sapphic romance is a thing that is still sorely lacking in the fantasy or young adult sphere, and Natasha not only contributed to that gaping need, but she did it magnificently. Reading about Lei and Wren being initially attracted to each other, then eventually falling in love, even in the midst of their suffering and degradation at the hands of the king, was beautiful and inspiring and magical. Let me tell you, if I’d read such wonderful sapphic fantasy when I was a teenager, I would’ve come to terms with being bisexual a lot sooner. And I politely invite everyone who thinks that this is an inappropriate book for teens because of the sapphic romance to kiss my ass.
☕ Writing ☕
As almost everyone knows, I have an absolute weakness for world-building – and Natasha delivers wonderfully on that front. Throughout the book, Lei narrates to us how the Demon King came to rule over Ikhara, not to mention interesting scenes and interludes that give us a glimpse into the culture and customs of the kingdom. In this book, you can see how heavily Natasha was influenced by her Malaysian heritage.
Don’t even get me started on the descriptions of the food! And holy Jesus, the descriptions of the clothes! If I had any inkling of artistic talent, you can bet I’d be spending quite a bit of time trying to draw the magnificent robes, gowns, and hairstyles Natasha lovingly details. Of course, there’s an undeniable hardness to the glamor, since you know it came about as a result of the girls’ imprisonment and slavery, but you gotta admit that reading about new variants on the usual frumpy ball gowns described in fantasy novels is a breath of fresh air.
On the darker end of things, one aspect of the novel that I really appreciated was how Natasha unflinchingly handles the discrimination that the Paper caste receives. The systemic and institutionalized abuse closely mirrors certain real-life situations – enough that you have to wonder if Natasha deliberately created these parallels. But at the same time, it’s carefully and sensitively handled, so it doesn’t feel like poverty porn.
☕ Characters ☕
As much as I despised the antagonists of this novel, I also can’t deny that from a literary standpoint I adored almost every single one. Lei and Wren were, naturally, absolute perfection. I loved Lei’s stubbornness, her drive, her desire for freedom, her passion for everything that she set her mind to do. I also loved how Wren was essentially her foil. Whereas Lei is fire, Wren is water, cool, calm, collected, a strategic thinker who is seen as cold and unattainable by the rest of the Demon King’s Paper Girls.
I also appreciated how Natasha handled the personalities of the Paper Girls. From those beginning to suffer from Stockholm Syndrome to those who follow the rules to keep their families safe, the tiny glimpse we get into the realities of their lives is poignant and rewarding.
However, one character I didn’t particularly care for was the Demon King himself. I like my villains to have a rational reason behind their villainy – mostly because villains whose reasons you can, if not agree with, at least understand, are the most terrifying, aren’t they? I didn’t get any of that from the king. It was almost like he was evil for the sake of being evil. Even his prejudice didn’t seem like it stemmed from any kind of fear, hatred, distrust, or any of the normal reasons why people are normally prejudiced against another.
☕ Overall ☕
Girls of Paper and Fire is the young adult fantasy that you need in your life. It’s Asian, it’s sapphic, and it’s taken the world by storm. I enjoyed it so, so much and honestly can’t wait to read the next book in this series. Natasha Ngan is a highly talented writer with a vivid imagination, a well of inspiration from her culture and heritage, and the writing skills to put everything together. This woman’s gonna keep wowing us, just you wait and see!