Today, I’m reviewing one of the most important YA fantasies that I’ll probably read all year: Girls of Paper and Fire, by Natasha Ngan. This sweeping, lyrical YA fantasy left me in a book coma for days.
TW: this book contains sexual assault and violence
Girls of Paper and Fire centers the voice of Lei, a human seventeen-year-old girl who is a member of the Paper-caste, society’s most oppressed, and totally human, class. She lives in Ikhara, a country inspired by Malaysia and China where magic-wielding demons hold all of the power, and humans live in fear of their tyranny. Still recovering from the grief and shock of losing her mother in a raid several years ago, Lei is torn from her family by palace guards, who decide to gift her to the king because of her strange, golden eyes. She is forced to become the ninth Paper Girl, usually a group of eight teenaged Paper-caste girls who are chosen by the king to serve as his concubines for a year. As Lei struggles with her new life in the gilded cage of the palace, she must decide if she is going to quietly accept her fate, or if she is willing to rise up and fight her oppressors.
Ngan, a survivor of sexual assault herself, writes Lei and the other Paper Girls with empathy, compassion, and dignity, and she doesn’t shy away from exploring the dark realities of the situation Lei finds herself in. Don’t be fooled—this isn’t just a story about survival. It’s about sisterhood, found family, and how these girls find strength by supporting and lifting each other. It’s also important to point out that Ngan doesn’t depict sexual violence on the page, though it is heavily alluded to and she does write some of the violence that proceeds it.
Each of the Paper Girls are affected by their situation in complicated ways. The youngest Paper Girl, Aoki, comes to believe that she’s in love with the king, and her changing beliefs conflict with Lei’s in very compelling ways. Another Paper Girl, Blue, lashes out at Lei and the other girls because she hates that she has to play the part of a dutiful daughter who wants the prestige of being a Paper Girl. Then there’s Wren, the girl who holds herself apart from the others, who Lei finds herself inexplicably drawn to.
This brings me to one of my favorite aspects of the book: the romance. Lei and Wren find themselves pulled to each other, and as their feelings deepen, Lei realizes that even if she can’t stop what the king wants to do to her, he can never have her heart. Love is its own powerful form of resistance. Lei and Wren’s love story reads so organically, and the way they support each other and bring each other happiness despite their horrible circumstances is truly beautiful. I was so glad to see Ngan’s passion for diversity on the page throughout this entire story, and to see so many different Asian cultures explored and represented.
The pacing and tension of this book is fantastic, as well, proven by my feverish two-day reading spree. Did I lose sleep over this book? Yes, yes I did. There’s a palpable feeling of dread underlying so much of the narrative, and I was desperate to know how Lei would pull through. Ngan does a fantastic job of weaving worldbuilding and political upheaval into the first half of the book to set up for a truly satisfying conclusion that still left me eager for book two.
Also, fun fact: I started this review intending to write a bunch of mini reviews about my latest reads. Alas, I love Girls of Paper and Fire too much to keep my gushing to a paragraph or two.
Buy a copy of Girls of Paper and Fire for $18.99 at Barnes and Noble, or grab a copy at your local indie bookstore or library.
Writer, reviewer, bookseller, book nerd extraordinaire. Fiction reader at Waxwing Magazine.