Year after year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the cruelest.
But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.
Please be aware – this review has not been written by Virginia Hodgson and as a result, it may not be in accordance with her views on the subject. It is written by a third party writer and there may be affiliate links contained in the article. This means that we may receive a small commission from Amazon if you buy through on of the links.
Girls of Paper & Fire Review – UPDATED 2019
The Paper caste is the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. The novel features other castes such as the part-demon Steel caste, who have certain animal attributes as a result of their demon blood, and the ruling mostly-demon Moon caste.
A long time ago, there was respect and cooperation between the castes, but since the first Demon King conquered the land, the Paper caste has only become more downtrodden and despised, for the other castes, especially the Moon caste, generally follow the Demon King’s example in seeing the Paper caste as things to be used and discarded. There are only a handful of aristocratic families from the Paper caste, and even their positions are unstable.
Every year, the king selects a new set of girls, usually eight, and makes them be his concubines for the year, regardless of their choice. They are called the Paper girls.
The main character of the novel, Lei is a member of the Paper caste. She lives in a remote village with her father, a village herb-shop owner, 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.
I found Lei easy to identify with. She’s a simple girl who has had a tough life. She loves with all of her heart and is very emotional. This is her greatest strength and weakness. Once she’s at the palace, her limits are tested both emotionally and physically.
Paper Girls are concubines whose lives are strictly supervised. They serve the Demon King personally for one year before being disposed of elsewhere according to his will. Lei despises the idea of serving in the Demon King’s bed, but her life and the lives of her family are at stake. For a while – before the Demon King calls on her to serve him – palace life doesn’t seem that bad. Some of the other Paper Girls become friends, and for one, she begins to develop a dangerous, impossible attraction.
The love story between Lei and one of the other girls is beautifully written and completely commendable. It outlines with delicate clarity Lei’s reactions, both emotional and physical, to a woman rather than a man. More importantly, never once does Lei feel any shame for her sexual orientation, she merely realizes this truth about herself. Stories which do not feature a somewhat stereotypical sense of shame about sexual orientation are really powerful because the message that they send is that there is absolutely nothing shameful or wrong about who you are, so this was a real delight to read.
The setting is inspired by Ngan’s upbringing as a British Chinese Malaysian and the ensuing blend of cultures she experienced during her childhood. There two primary elements of the world-building seem to be Imperial China and Feudal Japan, but it would be easy to imagine the influence of several other historical eras (and mythologies) from the Asian region shaping the world of Ikhara. As a consequence, Ngan has built a world which feels as though it has a very definite history, a nuanced political structure, and a clear sense of where the rifts lie within Ikhara.
Girls of Paper and Fire manages to be both beautiful and ugly at the same time. Natasha Ngan’s writing is brilliant in the way she is able to tackle so many topics at once. She dives deep into the root of this story and pulls on the reader’s heartstrings. You’ll want to root for every girl and hope for their survival. And although there were instances where the plot was a bit slow, the final act of this book makes up for those certain areas.
Girls of Paper and Fire Series by Natasha Ngan
Girls of Paper and Fire is Natasha Ngan’s third book and first foray into fantasy, and she has created one of the most original worlds I have come across in a long time.
In terms of world-building, Natasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire works a lot better for me. Overall, it just purely works: part of that might be the sheer weight of feeling that Ngan packs into this, her third novel and fantasy debut.
Ngan evokes the claustrophobia of a constrained life as a palace concubine – within walls, surrounded by rules, living at someone else’s whim – very efeffectively without resorting to cliché or the kind of tone more reminiscent of a boarding-school story. Violence, sexual and otherwise, looms at the centre of the story. Ngan doesn’t shy away from it, or let the reader forget it, but she doesn’t dwell on it either.
Instead, she dwells on women’s agency, on Lei’s determination and Wren’s strength, on the choices Lei makes and the risks they both run to grasp at happiness, freedom, and some kind of justice. This is a vital and energetic novel, an accomplished fantasy debut that mounts with increasing tension towards an explosive conclusion. I enjoyed it tremendously, although I expected Lei’s self-destructive opposition to engaging in coerced sex work to have more consequences earlier.
Girls of Paper and Fire is an entire story in itself, but it’s also the first book in a longer series. I’m seriously looking forward to seeing what Ngan does next.
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Girls of Paper and Fire Sequel – Release Date
Girls of Storm and Shadow is the sequel to the novel, Girls of Paper and Fire. Here, Lei and Wren have escaped their oppressive lives in the Hidden Palace, but soon learn that freedom comes with a terrible cost. The hardcover is set to be released on the 5th of November, 2018 and you can get it here.