Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication date: 06 November 2018
Genre: YA fantasy
Page count: 400 pages
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
This is a spoiler-free review.
Girls of Paper and Fire has been on everyone’s lips ever since its publication was announced in 2018. As an f/f romance set in an east Asian-inspired imperial court that deals with the trauma of rape and sexual assault, it got a lot of attention and hype from the YA book community. As excited as I was to read this book, I’m always wary of the hype that can surround new releases, and didn’t pick it up until now. However, I’m so glad that I read it — it’s an beautifully written and powerful book.
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 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.
The world in Girls of Paper and Fire is vast and incredibly well built. I love the way that Ngan managed to weave in references to other provinces and regions so effortlessly — there’s no info dumping at all, and given how rich the world is, that’s a pretty huge accomplishment. I absolutely loved her descriptions of the food, clothing, and architecture at the palace in particular. The way that everything, especially the dresses that the paper girls wear, has a deeper meaning was just great.
I admit that I did really struggle with the beginning of the book, partially due to my inability to connect with Lei as a narrator (see below). It took me absolute ages to get engaged with the story, however once I reached the halfway point it began to pick up for me and I was fully immersed in the book.
For a book told in the first person, I was surprised by the fact that I just didn’t really connect with Lei. There’s no doubt in my mind that she’s a great character — she stays strong while facing circumstances that would make others crumble and she’s so fierce in her beliefs and ideals. However, I just didn’t quite click with her. Wren, on the other hand, oh my god. She is easily one of my new favourite heroines ever. The way that Ngan teased out her story and background was so skillful and Wren was such a magnificent character in this book. She initially isn’t around much, however you can feel her presence on the page and she was such a force of nature by the end.
One of the best things about Girls of Paper and Fire is actually the romance between the two. The love that grows between Lei and Wren is one of the most natural I’ve ever read in YA — it is so beautifully written, especially in the context of the trauma that they undergo at the hands of the Demon King.
Overall, Girls of Paper and Fire is an excellent book that deals with dark themes incredibly well. Some people may not agree that YA books should include this kind of trauma, however, to me, the book wasn’t really about that. Girls of Paper and Fire is about the strength of women and how the power of friendship and love can be healing in the most devastating of circumstances — this is something that all people, especially young women, should have access to.
CW: Fade to black rape and on-page sexual assault, animal death, slavery
Want to try Girls of Paper and Fire for yourself? You can find it at the following sites (affiliate links):