Title: Girls of Paper and Fire
Author: Natasha Ngan
Release Date: 6th November
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
My Rating: 5 Stars!
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.
“I don’t want an easy life. I want a meaningful one.”
This BOOK! Girls of Paper and Fire is a beautifully written, rich Asian inspired fantasy. I don’t usually go for Asian type fantasies so this, to me, was something brand new and unique. I really fell into this book, it was so quick and easy to grasp the world and start to get to know the characters. Very quickly we learn about the tragedy that befell Lei’s family in her mother’s kidnapping and so we feel instantly connected to her. The fantasy element to this story was really interesting – it came in two main forms. The main thing was this system of demon castes. In GOPAF there are demons in the form of half animal half human – these are called the moon castes. We also have lesser demons that have some animalistic features but aren’t fully demon called Steel castes, and finally there are the paper castes, just fully fledged humans like our protagonist. This creates such a fantastic political climate for the story, with a lot of tension between the castes. The other element is the shamans who are mostly employed by the king. This sets the tone as a real high fantasy and is not overused but is present throughout the story and I imagine we will see more of this in subsequent books (that’s right, it’s a trilogy!).
In addition to the fantasy elements, the world’s history is so well developed. There are quite a few different countries/regions specified and each one had history that is mentioned and their own political stance. Past rebellions and kings and political unrests are mentioned and these all just go to create this story that is so nuanced and has so much potential for its sequels.
I think part of what really makes this book is the relationships between the different characters (I know I always say this but you guys know I LOVE my character driven plots!). GOPAF follows a group of 8 girls who become concubines to the cruel Demon King. Yikes. When you put 8 girls from completely different backgrounds and classes in the same strained and difficult situation, you’re going to get a whole host of reactions. Ngan does a fantastic job here of giving each character a backstory and thinking about how that will make them react to this horrible situation. Each girl feels a different way and you can see exactly why in the way each character is written. With a large cast of important characters I feel like some writers tend to skim over each personality, but Ngan has clearly got to know every one of her characters very well.
Now, having said all this, I haven’t even mentioned the romance, which was FIRE. Literally. The book has this fantastic theme of love being its own power; with love these girls have the power to defy. They are trapped and monitored and their lives are controlled by the Demon King, but their hearts aren’t. With love comes rebellion. I love this message – falling in love in an intolerant and controlling society can be the ultimate act of rebellion and that is so relevant to our own society. I love when authors understand that to write a strong female, you don’t need to make them a badass fighter. Strength comes in so many different forms and Lei is one of the strongest characters I’ve read. Some other YA writers would do well to remember this.
The actual romance that develops in this book is a f/f relationship between Lei, our main character and Wren, one of the other paper girls. This obviously means their relationship is secret and forbidden, and let me tell you, I LIVE for the forbidden romance trope. There is something so gripping and steamy, yet heartwrenching about two people who love each other against the odds and fight against their hearts desires until they can’t bear to be apart any longer. These kinds of romances are THE BEST.
This book is so important to YA. It has to be one of the most important YA fantasies of the year, simply because it actually presents a sapphic relationship. I have read so much m/m fiction recently, and there are authors such as Adam Silvera and Becky Albertalli who are respected for writing these romances and that’s great, but I feel that gay fiction that represents women is still dragging behind. The fact that this wonderful own-voices Asian fantasy with a lesbian relationship has made it on to the NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER LIST (!!!) makes me endlessly happy. I know this book means so much to friends of mine who never see themselves represented in fantasy and to them, this book is the whole world. Girls of Paper and Fire is a complete win for the YA genre, and I look forward to whatever is next from Natasha Ngan!
A final note, this book does contain some topics and scenes that could be triggering to some including sexual assault, rape, violence and sex trafficking. It gets pretty dark at times so if you think this could be difficult for you please make sure you are in the right headspace to read it.