Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan – REVIEW
Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honour 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.
“It doesn’t matter how beautiful the cage is. It’s still a prison.”
Girls of Paper and Fire has been all over Twitter for months now so I was excited to finally get my hands on a copy and see what all the fuss was about. Last month’s Fairyloot included a gorgeous exclusive edition that had pink sprayed edges and one of the most striking covers I’ve seen. One of my favourite elements was the Asian-inspired world building and the inventive caste system comprised of Paper (human), Steel (human and demon) and Moon (demon), with Paper being the lowest caste. The Asian traditions and influences infuse the story with a richly descriptive setting and the lush descriptions create an unforgettable world that lingers in the reader’s mind long after finishing.
“When the world denies you choices, you make your own.”
Within the palace, the human concubines of the Demon King are carefully controlled and monitored. The oppression they experience, most notably their sexual assault by the king, is harrowing to read but skilfully handled. Some of the descriptions were quite brutal at times but never gratuitous. One of my favourite elements was the portrayal of the female concubines. I loved learning about their different backgrounds and how they each adapted to their new life. The friendships and rivalries formed were diverse and complex, enhancing the plot and advancing their characterisation. Aoki was one of the most fascinating characters for me as her infatuation with the Demon King explores her internalised attitudes and learned acceptance of societal norms.
“I don’t want an easy life. I want a meaningful one.”
The f/f relationship between Lei and Wren was beautifully written yet never overshadowed the political machinations of the plot. It was wonderful to see Lei’s growing empowerment and sense of agency as she discovers a way to bring down the Demon King. As the pace increased and the stakes became higher, I couldn’t put the book down. The final chapters were tense yet exhilarating, but the cliffhanger has me dying for the next book. Luckily, the author has said this is the first book in a trilogy. If you want a well-written and lush f/f YA fantasy, then you should definitely read Girls of Paper and Fire.