It’s the highest honor they could hope for… and the most demeaning. This year, there’s a ninth. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.
In this richly developed fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most persecuted class of people in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards for an unknown fate still haunts her. Now, the guards are back and this time it’s Lei they’re after–the girl with the golden eyes whose rumored beauty has piqued the king’s interest.
Over weeks of training in the opulent but oppressive palace, Lei and eight other girls learns the skills and charm that befit a king’s consort. There, she does the unthinkable–she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens her world’s entire way of life. Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.
I’ve added this to my mental list of books that I wish I had had when I was a teenager and the actual demographic for YA novels, because holy shit.
Where to begin? I think I’ll start with the fact that I loved this book as a slow burn (in terms of both plot and in terms of romance, but we’ll get to that,) heavily focused on character as opposed to plot. When it comes to the kind of subject matter that Girls of Paper and Fire tackles–a very dominating patriarchy, class imbalances, sexual exploitation, abuse, and rape–I think that it’s good that, for a decent chunk of the book, this was less focused on an epic, sweeping fantasy plot, and more on Lei, her experiences with her world, and her discovery of there being more going on in the Hidden Palace than just her duty as a Paper Girl.
Let’s get into it.
When the world denies you choices… You make your own
Media often has this very specific version of a victim and survivor of trauma. We are often, in my experience, depicted as wilting flowers. Helpless. It is palatable because it’s what’s assumed. Lei–and for that matter, the other Paper Girls that she serves with–are far from being what I expected going in. I liked that. They are complex, and in Lei’s case specifically, flawed.
This is sometimes to hers and others’ detriments.
Lei is hypocritical. She is often judgmental. But she is also empathetic. She’s kind. She’s a seventeen-year-old girl who was ripped from her home and forced to do something that no child should have to. Her character in every facet reflects that. She is imperfect, and often I feel like the image of victim, the representation of survivor, implicitly calls for perfection.
This was, in a word, refreshing. It’s comforting in a strange way, to see people like you depicted as people as opposed to digestible figureheads for someone else to weave a narrative through, and if there’s a book that handles the diversity and the complexity of what it means to be a young woman (or girl) who has gone through what the Paper Girls have, it is Girls of Paper and Fire.
Instead of disappearing, she makes me feel reappeared. Reimagined. Her touch shapes me, draws out the boldness that had been hiding in my core.
Girls of Paper and Fire, Natasha Ngan
One of the aspects that really cemented this as a favorite of mine, was the romance.
Barring spoilers, it was far from perfect. However: for the flaws that it has (a mild case of co-dependence and the pacing making the I-Love-Yous feel premature) it still feels like two 17 and 18-year-old girls finding something good for themselves in an utterly tragic situation.
This scenario is not perfect. Their world is not perfect. But like with Lei and her imperfections, there’s a layer of complexity to their dynamic that, while underdeveloped, was still good. I appreciate Natasha Ngan for every moment of tenderness Lei was able to experience. She delicately balanced new/first loves without making it feel contrived, which I think is something that’s hard to accomplish at times, especially in fantasy spaces.
Aside from a few nitpicks regarding the lack of solid world-building (I crave more. Specifically in the beginning, detailing a little more the classes that Paper Girls take, how others interact with or around them when they’re not prejudiced demons, the caste system in general,) a desire for more interactions and relationship building with the other Paper Girls, and possibly this having been better off with a dual POV between Lei and Wren to help with some of those issues, this was a wonderful book. If I can’t get my hands immediately on Girls of Storm and Shadow on release day I think I’ll cry.