So, in case you didn’t know, Girls of Paper and Fire was one of my top ten books last year! It’s a YA fantasy with everything I love to read (except perhaps a small lack of pirates…): girls discovering their own internal power; harem politics; part-human-part-animal demons; gorgeous dresses; and a brilliant f/f relationship! If you want to check out my review from last year, then click here – but essentially, I loved it. When I was asked to be on the blog tour for the paperback release of the book, I knew immediately what I wanted to do: a slow, thorough reread, to see what little nuances and tidbits I’d missed while I was devouring the plot for the first time…
If you haven’t read the book, I recommend looking at a synopsis before you read this post, because while I’ll try to keep it spoiler-free, I won’t be rehashing the plot, so you might get a little lost if you don’t know the premise!
So, first things first, I still hugely appreciate the fact that there are trigger warnings clearly stated in the front of the book, both as a separate page and in more depth as part of the Author’s Note: they are for scenes of violence and sexual assault. It’s still rare to find books that actually contain trigger warnings, as opposed to reviewers needing to provide them to other reviewers (which puts those earliest readers in harm’s way), and really shows that the author cares about the well-being of her readers. The Author’s Note in particular briefly but honestly discusses how Ngan wanted to show positivity and healing alongside the realities of trauma which many women have suffered – if I didn’t know it already from having read the text and enjoyed it, this heartfelt note would be a great sign to tell me that she’s sensitive and mature enough to handle these difficult subjects delicately and gracefully, without including them for the sake of shock or drama. It’s a really nice touch, and something that made me feel safe reading the book despite these being particular triggers for me – as I discussed in my previous post, preparedness makes all the difference when facing difficult subjects.
As a quick aside, I really loved the sex positivity shown by Aoki’s anecdote about her sister having premarital sex with her betrothed before deciding that she would go through with the marriage. It’s a small, easily missed comment, but it doesn’t shame women for wanting sexual compatibility in a relationship or taking control of their sexual choices, which is a great counterpoint to the discussions of virginity and ‘purity’ going on at that point around the Paper Girls. It’s refreshing.
Onto non-sex-related things: the map! I honestly can’t remember if there was a map in the ARC I read or not, but I do know one thing, and that’s that I never look at maps in books before I read. I prefer to piece together the world in my head from the text, not have it laid out for me, and also, I’ve been burned one too many times with maps that are spoilery, making it obvious where characters will go! But I did give it a look this time, having already formed my opinions about the look of the Hidden Palace, and it’s not only really pretty, it’s also completely non-spoilery. I particularly love the depiction of the River of Infinity – it looks so cool, and gives a great impression of how this court is all about imagery and presenting certain ideals to its viewers.
Moving into the book itself, I was struck by the gorgeous writing just as much as I was the first time round. It’s vivid and descriptive, sitting just on the right side of purple prose for me, and it’s got several motifs of imagery that are recalled throughout the book. Paper and fire are two of the strongest, of course, but watch out also for the descriptions of the trees to see the year moving on before your eyes. The dresses, too, are described so beautifully I could probably sketch them from memory, if I could draw. There’s a gorgeous mix of fragility and strength in all the descriptions of beautiful things, and if that isn’t an allegory for Lei herself, I don’t know what is. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – women discovering power within themselves, and that being powerful doesn’t in any way exclude being soft and feminine, is a real box-ticker for me, so this book is just my cup of tea.
One particular line in the prologue hit me quite hard this time round: “Our kingdom believes words have power.” Lei is talking here about the words hidden inside each person’s birth-blessing pendant, which are revealed on their 18th birthday and offer a description of their fate, but I think that words become an underlying theme throughout the book. Lei at the beginning of the story puts a lot of stock in people’s words – just look at her reaction to the Paper woman who calls her ‘Dzarja’, traitor – and this is because she has been raised in an environment where nobody lies to her. Her parents and Tien have built a life for her where words mean love and promises are kept, but words mean very little against the actions of the King and his demons, as is shown when her father tries to talk General Yu out of taking Lei. Though his words follow all the correct patterns, they have little effect against the General’s brute force – and though Lei may shout all she wants, it will not change the fact that she is now a Paper Girl.
Over the course of the story, Lei learns that it is actions, not words, that will keep her alive, and I find it fascinating that the first time she meets Wren, no words are exchanged between them – and once they become close, no words are needed. There are multiple instances where Lei explicitly states that a look or a touch between her and Wren ‘contains words’, including my favourite line in the whole romance arc: ‘There are words in our kiss.’ Lei learns that words can be as much of a mask or performance as the dresses she is given, and as she learns to manipulate words, she finds better and simpler ways of communication for when she needs to connect truthfully – and she needs Wren’s guidance to lose that reliance on trusting words, and to lean in to her sense of self and her sense of morality. This duality between words and actions is so clever, and really stood out to me on this second reading – look out for it and you’ll see Lei’s interactions with spoken and unspoken words in several key situations (not just with Wren).
There’s so much depth to this book! It’s easy to get caught up in the machinations of the court, the gorgeous romance, and Lei’s need to escape the king’s clutches, but this is also a story that really benefits from a much closer read. I was really paying attention this time, and I still think I’ll want to come back after Girls of Storm and Shadow, the sequel, and see what else that might have opened my eyes to!
But most importantly: it was just as brilliant the second time round.
A huge thanks to Kate Keehan at Hodderscape for inviting me onto the tour and providing me with a paperback copy to review.