Girls of Paper and Fire
by Natasha Ngan
Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most demeaning. This year, there’s a ninth. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.
In this richly developed fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most persecuted class of people in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards for an unknown fate still haunts her. Now, the guards are back and this time it’s Lei they’re after — the girl with the golden eyes whose rumored beauty has piqued the king’s interest.
Over weeks of training in the opulent but oppressive palace, Lei and eight other girls learns the skills and charm that befit a king’s consort. There, she does the unthinkable — she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens her world’s entire way of life. Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.
CW: I will be discussing sexual assault in this review.
I’m so glad this book exists—for both queer girls and sexual assault survivors alike—and I’m sorry I didn’t love it more.
Girls of Paper and Fire is one of those books that’s been on my TBR from the moment I heard its premise. I didn’t realise until I heard it just how much a story about a king’s concubine falling in love with one of her fellow concubines was a story I wanted to read, but its premise has also meant it’s a book I’ve been putting off for a long time. I find books that include scenes of sexual violence, even when they’re done tastefully and aren’t gratuitous, very difficult to read. They’re the kinds of stories I need to build myself up to.
When I finally picked this novel up I was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to read. Despite its darker themes—and this book is a lot darker than some of the other books that fall into the YA fantasy category—it still has the readability of a YA novel that pulls you through it and, once I got into the meat of the story, I finished it in a few hours.
Lei is a member of the Paper caste, meaning she is fully human, in a world where the power is held by animal-like demons who love nothing more than keeping the Papers in their place. Each year, eight girls from the Paper caste are chosen as Paper Girls for the Demon King—essentially becoming his sex slaves—and Lei’s unusual golden eyes lead to her being picked and dragged away from her family to the palace and the life of a concubine. If she disobeys, her family will pay with their lives.
I’ve seen a few reviews complain about this novel’s lack of plot, but I have to disagree. If you are the kind of reader who loves an action-packed plot then this novel might not be for you, but considering YA fantasy is awash with novels that often prioritise plot over character I enjoyed reading a much quieter novel. I love quiet fantasy, and I especially love quiet fantasy that focuses on the voices of those we don’t usually hear from. There are so many fantasy novels out there about kings, princesses and assassins, but when was the last time any of us read a fantasy novel from the perspective of a concubine? The voices of women like Lei, and the other Paper Girls, have been silent for too long, and I’m so glad this novel prioritised them.
Where Girls of Paper and Fire excels is in those quiet scenes between the girls and how each of them reacts to the position they’ve found themselves in. Lei is the only one of the girls who, when she is first called to the king, resists him, but it doesn’t mean she’s the only one who doesn’t want to be there. All of the girls find different ways to cope with having to smile through a whole year of having a job where they’re raped by a tyrant and expected to be grateful for it. It’s not always easy reading, but Ngan deals with her subject matter very sensitively and I must applaud her and her publisher for providing not only content warnings, but also several helplines, at the front of the book.
Ultimately it was my preference for those quieter moments that led to me not being quite as invested in the latter section of the book. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Lei and the girl she grows to love become involved in a plot to get rid of the king for good, and the plot itself makes perfect sense—who better to get to the king than the women he’s with when he’s at his most vulnerable?—but for whatever reason it simply didn’t interest me the way a tale of rebellion usually would. I don’t know how much of that is down to the Demon King himself being a little too moustache-twirly for my tastes. It’s certainly not difficult to hate him, he’s a rapist who loves the power he has over these girls, but as a villain I’d’ve liked more nuance from him. I never quite understood why he was in power when, many of the times we see him, he seems like a petulant boy. Perhaps that was the point, but I’m a little bored of evil kings who are evil because they’re evil. I’m never going to be on his side, but I’d find him far more unsettling if he wasn’t written like his real name is Villain McMeanie.
I’m also not entirely sure how I felt about the romance in this book. I didn’t dislike it by any means, and I’m always glad to have a fantasy novel with a central f/f romance under my belt, but I never really felt it the way I hoped to. For me they were declaring their love for one another a little too quickly. I know epic fantasy often leads to heightened, epic feelings, too, but I’d love to see more high fantasy include romantic relationships that develop slowly. I don’t need two characters to be deeply in love to root for them, but I did love that the two of them had each other to turn to for comfort after their nights with the king.
Ultimately while I didn’t love this book as much as I hoped to, I’m still so glad it was published; it’s clear it’s been written straight from the soul. I don’t know if I’ll continue with the series—I saw mostly negative reviews of the second book—but if the finale receives a lot of good reviews when it’s published I may see if I can borrow them from the library.