I received this book for free from Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan
Published by Hodder & Stoughton on 6th November 2018
Genres: YA Fantasy
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 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.
About Girls of Paper and Fire
In the Asian-inspired country of Ikhara there are three castes
- Paper – human, and the lowest, most persecuted class.
- Steel – human with part animal-demon qualities and features.
- Moon – fully demon with wholly animal-demon features.
The Demon King who rules over Ikhara from his throne in The Hidden Place is Moon caste, as the elite tend to be. Every year, by tradition, the Demon King selects eight girls of Paper caste to become his concubines. For a year, the girls will live together within The Hidden Palace, attend events, study, and be available to the King. Some of the girls have waited their whole lives for the opportunity to become a ‘Paper Girl’, to please the King and live in relative luxury. For others, it is entirely out-with their control.
Lei is a member of the Paper cast, but, unusually, she has the golden eyes of a demon. She lives in a rural village where she helps out in her father’s shop. Seven years ago the village was raided by the Demon King’s men who kidnapped Lei’s mother. She’s never been seen again. Lei has since been raised by her father and, against societal norm, the Steel-caste woman who works in the shop.
Tales of Lei’s golden eyes draw the King’s men back to the village. This time it’s Lei who is kidnapped, taken to become one of the King’s new Paper Girls.
This is a stunning, memorable book that breaks from so many of the tropes I’ve seen in YA fantasy to date. It’s a breath of fresh air in that respect.
Ngan’s world is rich and developed. Inspired by Asian cultures, it’s well-rounded, with history and tradition aplenty. Ngan’s descriptions are wonderful – her scenes with food made my stomach rumble!
There’s also a darkness to this novel. While we may not see the graphic scenes of the rape of the girls, it is there, coupled with abuse and violence. We are shown enough to feel repulsed, and know what’s going on, without too much detail.
Through the Demon King, Ngan looks at the power held by rapists, and through the Paper Girls we see the ranging effects on their victims.
It’s Lei’s story that we follow – a story filled with grief and loss. There’s captivity, anger, fear, and repulsion, but there are also feelings of friendship, love and hope.
The vast majority of the characters in this novel are female. As Ngan herself says, it’s a story of “female oppression and empowerment”.
Through the caste system of Paper, Steel and Moon, there’s a further look at oppression, class, dictatorship, and human rights.
I’m very conscious of spoilers so I won’t go into too much detail, but I will say that (for once) I enjoyed the romance in this YA fantasy.
Why the 4 stars then? Well, there was a spell when the Paper Girls were in the palace, fulfilling their ‘duties’, awaiting selection by the King and taking lessons that I lost interest a bit. Not in the writing, it is wonderful, but it was the only period where the events felt somewhat ‘familiar’, if that makes sense?
Also, there were a few of the characters that I just didn’t connect with and would’ve liked a bit more from. They just didn’t feel as rounded as I’d like.
Obviously, I hated the Demon King but while Ngan hinted at some of his insecurities and sensitivities, I’d love to have learned more about him and where his issues stem from. Maybe I’m just nosy?
All in all though, while it’s dark, this is a refreshing YA fantasy read. I love the own voices Asian-inspired world, and really appreciated Ngan’s brave exploration of female oppression and abuse.
It’s a novel that, for me, stands out from the YA fantasy crowd, for the best possible reasons. Please tell me there’s going to be another book in this world!