Reviewing: Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

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This book is astonishing. It’s been one I’ve been desperate to read for months now, so when it popped up on NetGalley I immediately requested it and waited refreshing my inbox until I got the confirmation before promptly finishing it in two days after reading in every spare moment I could find. Ngan has a talent for storytelling that is so rich and descriptive that I ended up highlighting 80% of the book (on my kindle, of course, because have you seen this cover? It’s far too beautiful to deface the physical copy with my squiggles).

She creates this incredible world of humans and demons, separated by caste. From the Moon castes at the top, pure demons with animalistic traits that make them at once fascinating and unnerving to the Steel castes with both human and demon traits. Down at the bottom beneath them all is the Paper caste, humans.  

“Ice blue eyes watch from under long lashes. Above his ears, thick horns unwind, etched with grooves inlaid with gold…The King’s face is long, almost delicate in shape, with a defined jaw and wide, graceful mouth, a cupid’s bow peaking perfectly in its middle.”

Lei is human, a Paper caste girl with unusual eyes that draw the attention of the King’s guards. She is taken from her home and told that she is to be a Paper Girl – a concubine for the King, eight of which are taken each year from the Paper caste as a sign of his goodwill and generosity. How low could the Paper caste be considered, after all, if the King himself takes them into his bed? Lei does not want to be a Paper girl, to dance and pose and smile for the King as he raids their villages and murders their families. But when her family is threatened, she will do anything to protect them.

I never realised how much fantasy fiction is Europe-based until I read this book. Ikhara has its roots firmly in Asian cultures, with walls of shifting rice paper, giant origami structures, ruquns and cheongsams and chopsticks. Then there’s the food….

“Some of the dishes are recognizable to me, if far more delicate than how I’ve tasted them before: steaming bowls of coconut rice jeweled with pomegranate seeds; marinated eel slices; a whole roasted duck glistening with dark sauce.”

I think the sole purpose of any scene with food in it was to make me hungry. Have I ever tried eel? No. Would I? Probably not. Did I want to when reading this? You know it. These lush descriptions juxtapose the luxury the girls experience every day with the horrific reality of what they are there to do. Yes they dress in jewelled dresses and eat the finest foods in the land, attending performances and parties – never hungry, never cold – but they do so at the cost of their freedom, and in exchange for a year of sexual slavery.

Needless to say this book has some dark themes. If you’re unable to read books that deal with sexual assault and a lack of consent, then sadly this may not be the book for you. It is accepted that the Paper Girls will be called one at a time to the King’s bedchambers where they will accept his advances regardless of their own desires. They return bruised and haunted, refusing to speak of what has been done to them, and the trauma of it permeates their otherwise peaceful lifestyle. Interestingly, it also deals with how some of the girls will defend their abuser. They are taught after all that he is the rightful King, all but a deity, and that his will is always correct and to be obeyed. He can be charming as well as menacing, and they live in isolated worlds of his making. If they take other lovers, if they defy him, they are branded as rotten and turned away to become prostitutes in a world that will no longer allow them to be anything else.

“I love him.”

The sentence hits me with a physical weight. Silence stretches between us, a dark, pulsing thing.I just about get the words out.

“You hated him once.

“I didn’t know him then.”…“He’s good to me, Lei – kind and caring and fair. He’s even said he’ll consider making me his Queen if I continue to please him.”

Amidst all of this suffering, trapped in their paper houses and bound to serve the man who says they are inferior, sparks of resentment and resistance fly and catch, spreading into a fire that will consume Ikhara. Alongside obedience there is rebellion, alongside hatred there is love. When Lei falls in love with another of the Paper Girls it is forbidden, and it is powerful. Their love story develops in the stolen moments, between classes, in the silence of the night. For Lei and Wren the love and desire they feel for one another is enough to strengthen them when the world is determined to make them weak, and their hatred of the King is enough to shatter the world as they know it. Because they are paper girls, but there is fire in their hearts, enough to burn the palace down.

“Falling in love is the most dangerous thing women like us can do.”

“I don’t agree”

“Oh? Then what do you think love is, then”

“Necessary. Powerful.Maybe the most important things women like us can do.”

I loved this book so, so much. It was stunningly written, poignant and heart wrenching and utterly, unmistakably wonderful. I’ve been recommending it to literally everyone since I read it, so here I am recommending it to you. Easily one of my favourite books this year, Girls of Paper and Fire is incredible, and I hope you will join me in adoring it.

Overall rating: 📖📖📖📖📖 5 books out of 5

A copy of Girls of Paper and Fire was provided by NetGalley in exchange for an honest and unbiased review

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