Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan
Published by Jimmy Patterson Books on November 6th, 2018
Genres: Fiction, LGBTQIA, Young Adult
“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.”
This was the fifth and final book I read for #AsianReadathon in honour of Asian Heritage Month. Girls of Paper and Fire satisfies Challenge #3: Read a book featuring an intersectional Asian character or written by an intersectional Asian identity.
Girls of Paper and Fire follows Lei, a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a tiny village with her father as they’re both trying to process the pain and trauma of watching Lei’s mother be snatched away by royal guards. The guards are back, and this time they’re after Lei — the girl with the golden eyes.
Lei, along with the other girls, learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t so quick to accept her fate. She defies and does the most dangerous thing of all — she falls in love. Her forbidden romance and her growing anger against the King threaten everything she’s loved. How far will she go for justice, revenge, and love?
To be honest, I didn’t think I was going to like this very much. But I chose it because a few book reviewers I trust gave it high praise. I’ll admit it — I judged a book by its cover. I wrote it off as a silly YA novel. But, oh boy, this is not just another silly fantasy YA book.
Before we go too far in this review, I have to say that I really appreciated that Ngan included a CW at the beginning of the book. I wish more authors would do this. I’ve heard the argument that authors don’t like to do this because it “gives too much away for readers.” And in my opinion, that’s a foolish way to look at things.
I will not be going into details about the CW, but I will include it at the end of this review so you can decide for yourself if you are able to handle reading the book. Always remember to practice self-care when making the choice to read heavy subject matter!
Girls of Paper and Fire reminded me a little bit of The Poppy War. Not in subject matter or writing style, but mostly that they are both fantasy books willing to go to some extremely dark places. Despite the political drama and unrest in the court, there is light — the f/f relationship at the centre of the story is beautiful.
The romance felt natural and very much a necessary foil to what the Paper Girls have to suffer through. The romance is about healing and reclaiming your body and power after horrifying trauma.
What I loved most about Ngan’s writing is that she lures you in with gorgeous descriptions that bring her world to life. In every scene, it felt like you were right there. You felt trapped and claustrophobic with the girls, but you could also see the opulence of life in the royal palace. Ngan so easily flips the switch between dull court life and the heart-pounding thrill of breaking the rules.
Another thing Ngan does so well is walking that fine line between friendship and jealousy between the Paper Girls. It’s fascinating to read considering they’re all diverse in backgrounds, personalities, and attitudes toward their situation.
At first I thought Blue was written as a stereotypical mean girl, but she developed into so much more throughout the book. Aoki has a special place in my heart because she’s such an interesting character. She broke my heart so many times! It hurt to watch her change her thoughts toward her circumstances as time went on.
Despite the dark and heavy subject matter, there is some fantastic discussion and portrayal around consent, desire, and passion in women. It’s a sex-positive book, which is rare in a story that focuses on women!
I’m interested to get into more of the political story and the history of Ikhara. I can’t wait to see what Ngan has up her sleeve for the sequel.
CW: sexual assault, slavery (specific to sexual slavery)