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.
Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze, the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years, collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.
Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.
If there’s ever a book that combines phenomenal world building, poignant character development and characters, and untouchable commentary that spans systems of oppression, racism, power imbalances, and climate decline, it’s The Fifth Season. N.K. Jeminisin is a veritable powerhouse of a writer. Her prose is as tight and beautiful as her story is mesmerizing.
It’s gritty. It’s dark. But in terms of how well a fantasy can take something that is truly as dark as systematic oppression and slavery and adequately handle its complexities and nuances, that grittiness and darkness is every bit earned and used to its fullest potential. Parts of this book made me put it down, because for as unique and utterly alien the world of the Stillness is, it is so harrowingly real that it’s hard not to react viscerally when reading. This wasn’t to The Fifth Season’s detriment; I think the point was to react, and to react deeply.
As one of my anticipated YA reads for the year, For Blood and Glory was a debut that didn’t disappoint.
Let’s get into it.
Sefira is just trying to bounce back—from a
lot. The institutionalization of her mother several years ago, the recent downward spiral in her mental
health that had her adopted family uprooting themselves for her sake. She wants
as normal life as possible, without the fear of her mother’s mental illness is
the reason for her own, without the consistent hatred of her step-brother who
blames her for his father leaving their blended family, and without the looming
feeling that something just isn’t right in her world.
When things start getting out of control, when she finds out she’s able to do so much more than an average sixteen-year-old girl should be able to, when she meets a girl that is more like her than she could ever image—Sefira enters the world she always should have been a part of. What she finds there is magic, revelations about the woman who was her mother, and a familial bond that she never expected to have. Life never comes together so easily, however, and as Sefira comes into her new powers amidst being chased by forces from another world, she uncovers a secret that puts the universe into perspective and her and her family’s lives in danger.
Sometimes you come across books that are
pretty; other times you come across books that are downright beautiful.
Let’s talk about The Belles.
Heavily inspired by New Orléans culture and French roots, The Belles is a decadent young adult fantasy that enticed me first with the sheer beauty in which it was written, and then kept me interested with rich world-building, a page-turning plot, and a main character that I couldn’t help but root for. Throw in sprinklings of forbidden love, court secrets, and betrayals I didn’t expect but probably should have, The Belles surprised me by how enjoyable and interesting I found it. From page one I wanted to dive straight into Orléans, experience the lavish balls, explore the colorful cities, and perhaps even book my own appointment at one of the many tea houses through which the Belles complete their beauty work—if I didn’t know the tea houses’ true nature, that is.