If you glanced at my Twitter even at all during the summer, you’ll know that Girls of Paper and Fire was one of my most anticipated reads of the year. I was so lucky to be sent an ARC by the publishers, and it’s honestly taken me this long to sort my thoughts out coherently about it – but the main takeaway point is: it’s SO good.
Book: Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan
Read before: No
Ownership: Physical ARC sent for review by Hodder and Stoughton, but I also pre-ordered the hardback because I knew I was going to love it.
Can we just appreciate the existence of this book for a bit? Asian inspired fantasy – yes! Demons and part-demons and humans awkwardly co-existing – yes! Harem politics, machination, and intrigue – yes! F/F fantasy – yes! I’ll say again – F/F FANTASY! There are so many things I loved about this book before I even opened it. I’m so glad that YA is embracing more diverse fantasy. I’ve always wondered what would happen if in one of these harem stories some of the concubines just decided not to bother with the king, but found love with each other, and well, now we know.
A great testament to any book is when you are reading the set-up before the initial crisis that spurs the plot on, and you would be perfectly happy just to read about the characters’ everyday lives if that crisis never came. I felt this way about Lei’s home, where the book opens. Lei works in her family’s apothecary shop with her father and their employee (/adopted family member) Tien, who is part cat. In this world, there are the Paper caste, who are wholly human, the Moon caste, who are wholly animalistic demons, and the Steel caste, who are in between – mostly human, with some animal traits. The backstory is set up effortlessly, and I could quite happily have watched the small-town interactions between different castes play out as Lei mixed herbs for her customers.
But alas for her, she is soon captured and presented to the king, a powerful demon who takes a harem of eight beautiful young Paper women each year. Lei is the unprecedented ninth girl, and she wants no part in it – except that the king’s court may hold the answers to the mystery of her mother’s disappearance. Lei was a wonderful character – the book is written in first person from her perspective, and her voice is so clear and unique that you instantly fall in love with her spirit. She’s kind as well as brave, and she’s also hurting. She’s wonderful to read.
When Lei meets the other Paper girls, you get to see a real breadth and depth of characters. I love when you can see worldbuilding so clearly through little differences in people’s behaviour – it hints at their upbringing, and shows you glimpses of a world beyond the storyline. Lei’s budding relationship with Wren, her fellow Paper girl, was gorgeously handled, and felt so natural and realistic. It is quite a quick realisation of love, due to the circumstances, but it felt well-explained (and definitely wasn’t insta-love!). I look forward to seeing how they get on in the sequel!
There are trigger warnings at the front of the book for sexual violence, and without too much of a spoiler, it’s fairly obvious that this is directed at the Paper girls, particularly Lei, by the king. I didn’t find it graphic, and I thought it was extremely necessary to the storyline – it always seems a little bit of a cop-out where a heroine is able to escape before she has to sleep with her captor, or even kill him in bed, thus protecting her innocence (looking at you, The Hundredth Queen). It’s as if it’s saying that a heroine must stay pure in order to stay our heroine, and I kind of hate that. Lei is a victim of rape, but she’s still the Lei we love, and it’s so amazing to watch her pick herself back up and decided that no, she will not be made a victim. It’s powerful and necessary – but take care of yourselves first and foremost. Message me if you need to know what pages to avoid.
Girls of Paper and Fire is such an important step for YA fantasy to take. It’s women wresting back control of their lives from the patriarchy and refusing to be forced into moulds. It’s fantastic. I loved it. I need you all to read it right now. An obvious five out of five cats.