Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan. ★★★★
TW: sexual assault, violence
Young adult fantasy meets The Handmaid’s Tale in this explosive new novel. Not only that, but did I mention that it’s queer?
Lei is a human girl, the lowest caste in a kingdom ruled by demons. Years ago, her mother was stolen by the royal guards, so when royal guards again come to her village, Lei knows it must mean bad news. And she’s right. In short order, her family has been threatened, her dog has been killed, and Lei herself has been kidnapped and taken to the palace to serve as a “Paper Girl” (AKA concubine AKA sex slave), along with eight other girls. In a grotesque situation, survival is Lei’s focus… but sometimes surviving goes beyond just staying alive. When Lei falls in love with another Paper Girl, the mysterious and beautiful Wren, she is tempting death and is on the edge of discovering a world-shattering conspiracy.
I started reading Girls of Paper and Fire at breakfast, and I’d finished by dinner time that same day. The pacing is glorious and never flags. I do agree with other reviews that I would have liked for Lei to find out more about the conspiracy earlier on, but it ultimately didn’t affect how I connected with the book or slow down the plot. Lei is in such an incredibly high-stakes situation that you don’t need a conspiracy to generate tension.
If you couldn’t tell from the trigger warning and the synopsis, Girls of Paper and Fire is a story about sexual assault and abuses of power. I’d say it’s fitting for the times we live in, but although these issues have been more in the news lately… they’re not new. It’s the same rancid garbage that powerful men have always gotten away with. Patriarchy is a huge force in Girls of Paper and Fire, but the class system places a role as well. In the world of the story, there are three main classes: Steel (demons), Moon (mix of demon and humans), and Paper (humans). Humans are the lowest social group and heavily oppressed. The selection of the Paper Girls is a highly ritualized affair that almost feels like a way for the Demon King to symbolically rape all of the oppressed classes. It’s a way of demonstrating power and the lack of power of the girls and the families they’re taken from.
As far as I can remember, the novel never uses the word “rape,” but it’s never in doubt what is happening to these girls, and the narrative never tries to downplay it. The court tries to present it as something the girls should be grateful for, pointing out all the nice clothes and food they’re now given. So many of the girls go along with this, trying to paint a picture where what’s happening to them isn’t so bad, because they don’t have a choice in the matter and it makes life easier to believe the lie.
Lei’s different in that she won’t go along with the story the court is trying to tell. She knows that what’s happening is horrific, and in a situation where she’s deprived of choices, staying true to that knowledge and herself is all she has left. There were times when I thought Wren might have been a more interesting perspective character… but ultimately, I think sticking with Lei was the right choice, as I quickly came to value her strength of character.
If the court is trying to convince the girls that they are “honored,” many of the Paper castes deride them as traitors, whores, and sluts. It’s all too real, and it’s another example of the sort of lies society has built up around the institution of the Paper Girls. It’s easier for the Paper Caste to hate the girls than to recognize the reality of crimes against them.
I do have one minor note before I wrap this review up. Ace and aro readers, there’s some language about sexual attraction and love being natural and such and such. Honestly, it’s no different from any other YA novel in that regard, but it’s something I noticed and I’m trying to now say things when I notice them and not dismiss them as something no one else will care about.
Overall, Girls of Paper and Fire is a thematically powerful novel, but it’s also exceptionally well written. As I already mentioned, the pacing is quick and the characterization strong. The writing is beautiful and the world building intriguing. Girls of Paper and Fire is 100% going to show up on my “best of 2018” list, and if you can handle the darkness and thematic material, I highly encourage you to read it.
I received an ARC in exchange for a free and honest review.