Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan
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.
I’ve heard a lot about Girls of Paper and Fire over the past few months, and it definitely lived up to my expectations. I was absolutely blown away by the story of Lei and her fellow paper girls and some of the most interesting world-building I’ve ever seen.
The first thing that struck me about this book was the world-building. The castes of demons and humans were unlike so much of YA fantasy that it hooked me immediately. In this world, demons are anthropological humans, which is, you know, if you’ve ever seen furry drawings, understandably terrifying. I was so fascinated by the lore behind the demons, as well as the different provinces of Ikhara and all the history behind the world. A lot of times, stories behind the world are usually just flavour, but Girls made it matter.
Add in the lush setting inspired by Malaysia and its mesh of culture, and you get an absolutely incredible, rich, unique fantasy world. And the food descriptions, oh my goodness. Nothing gets me like amazing food descriptions, and this book had them in spades.
I really loved reading about Lei, who was such an incredibly powerful protagonist. Some of the things she went through were so horrifying, but she was so resilient throughout the entire book. She struck me such a realistic character who reflects so many teenage girls out there just trying to survive in an extremely hostile environment.
All the Paper Girls were so well-written, actually. Girls of Paper and Fire explores the effects of sexual abuse on teenage girls, and though no scenes are particularly graphic, it’s no less horrifying to read about. The paper girls lash out; they shut down; they become accustomed to the abuse. Girls shows that even when abuse is meant to make victims feel helpless, they aren’t; there are ways of fighting back, whether implicitly or explicitly.
One of the things that really interests me about this book is that it turns tropes on its head. You know, the trope where a girl gets chosen to go to the palace for some reason or another, usually under a similar situation as in girls, and ends up falling in love with one of the royals? Yeah, well, this book completely rejects that narrative, and it’s such a relief to see. It defies the Chosen One narrative as well – Lei is just a normal girl, even though there are hints at her being otherwise. And I’m not going to spoil anything, but Girls has one of my favourite F/F ships in fantasy, and I didn’t even know it was F/F going into it.
I found the pacing to be fairly decent, even though it seems a bit slow just after the beginning of the book as Lei falls into the routine of palace life. However, I was so engrossed in the characters and worldbuilding that I barely noticed it, and I felt that it was significantly more well-written than a lot of books that follow the same sort of storyline. And it was very character-focused as well – even though there’s a significant plotline about the Demon King, the story revolves mostly around the Paper Girls.
I adored this book. It was very dark and difficult to read at times but offered hope even through all the trauma and horror. I definitely recommend this book to anyone who can read it, especially if you like amazing worldbuilding.
content warnings: animal death, sexual assault, grief, death of a loved one, torture
“I don’t want an easy life. I want a meaningful one.”