Paper is flammable. And there is a fire catching among us
Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. 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.
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5 / 5
Girls of Paper and Fire has already made my shortlist of best YA of 2018. This beautiful and tragic and explosive debut by Natasha Ngan takes a classic YA trope – a group of young, beautiful women serving an evil ruler rise up to rebel – and elevates it to something fresh. Using demons, Eastern Asian mythological influences, and a lesbian romance, Girls of Paper and Fire is a book not to be missed.
“My life has always been about duty. Always, and only”
Lei is our simple village girl. She is a member of the Paper caste – those that are fully human – the lowest of society beneath the Steel, a mix of human and demon, and the Moon caste who are fully demon. Ngan makes this mixed society seem so effortless and natural; in this book is a world that we recognise sprinkled with original and magical elements that work so well. Lei is stolen away from her father and loving home by a royal guard hoping to gain favour with the Demon King; Lei’s beautiful golden eyes are bewitching and she is swiftly inducted as a ninth Paper Girl, a concubine of the King, against her will.
Alongside eight other girls, Lei is to learn how to be a lady of the court and to become well-versed in the arts of seduction and love-making. Here she meets Wren, a beautiful, aloof and harsh young woman with secrets of her own. Slowly Lei begins to realise that her heart cannot, will not, belong to the Demon King because it has already been ensnared by another. The romance is soft, slow growing, delicate and fierce and it absolutely won me over. It was such a lovely twist on the typical trope of the girl falling for a male guard who breaks her out.
“I am just a human girl kneeling before her demon King”
It is impossible not to be emotionally invested in Lei. Ngan masterfully captures in her writing the sense of entrapment, of lack of free choice that Lei is feeling when she is forced to serve a monster. This is a difficult, twisted story of abuse, of sexuality, of enslavement and forced servitude. It is difficult to read but it is not gratuitous. It is also about healing, about how we can overcome events in different ways, about loving yourself and others. I loved Lei and I loved Wren and I loved them together; they exist apart from each other – too often the love interest is defined only by the romance, but Wren is absolutely not – and intimately together.
Aside from the themes and the plot, I adored the writing. Ngan has captured the art of writing sensitively and evocatively without sounding pretentious or overwrought. There is beautiful and understated symbolism and rhythm to the writing – my copy of the book is doodled all over with underlining and personal notes. The words are used to bring the characters and the world to life, to make it seem natural despite the obvious vast differences to our own universe.
“The King’s words ring in my head and I think of the birds I watched earlier, how easily they lifted into the air. How impossible it is for me to follow them”
Girls of Paper and Fire deserves to be read. It handles sensitively and with respect a number of heavy topics (some readers may with to read the synopsis carefully), and it crafts a tale that is both familiar and fresh.
My thanks to Hodder & Stoughton for an ARC of this book.