Magic, mysticism and queer girls? Sign me up. It took me a while on the wait list at the library, but I finally got to read Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan! Whoop Whoop. (Also, I am on fire with my reading list for 2019!).
Writing the review for this, however, was incredibly hard.
Title: Girls of Paper and Fire
Author: Natasha Ngan
Format: Hardcover (library)
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.
Blurb from Goodreads
Natasha Ngan, Girls of Paper and Fire
We might be Paper Girls, easily torn and written upon. The very title we’re given suggests that we are blank, waiting to be filled. But what the Demon King and his court do not understand is that paper is flammable.
And there is a fire catching among us.
In some respects, this has quite a standard YA plot – a girl is plucked out of her country life and thrown into the craziness of the capital with some particular feature that makes her stand out (Lei has golden “demon” eyes). There, she learns how to survive (by learning how to be a concubine and perform as a lady of court) and makes friends and falls in love with someone she shouldn’t (one of the other paper girls). But, despite being anti-tropey, I didn’t really notice beyond the first thought that this was following so many tropes because I was really enjoying the story. I liked how the world’s magic/mysticism worked and I liked the realistic attempt at Lei to survive in this new world by learning the rules.
Lei is an interesting enough protagonist, and this is a world that relies on beauty as currency, which makes her relationships with the other Paper Girls interesting – there are trigger warnings for sexual assault at the very start of this book, with information on where to go for help, which I thought was good, as this book does not shy away from those themes. There are some girls that Lei is friends with, and cares about, there are some she loathes, and there are some who fall in the middle. How these change over the course of the book is quite interesting.
“I don’t want an easy life. I want a meaningful one.”
I think I liked this because it was a very female focussed book. The women are each others rivals yes, but also very much their support. Lei is surrounded by women from the second the Bull-Headed (literally) army person plucks her (forcibly) from her small town and delivers her to the Women’s Quarters of the palace. They are concerned with learning how to be “proper women”, in the eyes of me yes, but the only man they concern themselves with is the King. Lei’s world is one of women, and the trials and fears that come with that, and this book explores how women support and love and despise each other for whatever reasons. It was interesting, and the whole book was just way better than I was expecting (if I am perfectly honest).
But I think mainly, the reason I loved this book? The main characters are queer – two girls falling in love in a world that despises them. I’m here for that. It was a relationship that made sense to me, and developed fairly well. This is the first book in a trilogy (of course) so I wonder how the relationship fares over the next two books.