Girls of Paper and Fire, Natasha Ngan – Book Review

Hello Humans! I think I’m probably right in saying that Girls of Paper and Fire is on quite a few people’s ‘most anticipated’ lists for 2018, and with the publication date right around the corner I am delighted to be able to share my thoughts with you. This Asian fantasy takes a familiar story and spins it around to tell the kind of story that young adults (and adults) need to be reading.

girls of paper and fire natasha ngan cover

Goodreads Summary:

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 cruel.

But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.

In this lush fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, 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.

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. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.

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Content warning: violence and sexual abuse, reader discretion advised.

I thought that the premise of this book was wonderful. I mean, we’ve all read a ‘she’s forced into marriage with the evil prince/king but it turns out he is really just hurt and she changes him and they all live happily ever after’ story right? And we’ve all thought it was bs? Well, this book felt like a glorious middle finger to that narrative (I’m being overly harsh, that narrative is something of a guilty pleasure, but it was still nice to have it called out). I appreciated that Lei was given a pretty fleshed-out backstory, despite the fact that there isn’t a lot of action before she is taken to the palace. You get the full sense of why she acts the way she does when in the palace because of the context from her past. Had the book opened with her on the road to the palace, or in the palace itself, you wouldn’t have had that level of immersion in the story.

I also thought that the ‘side characters’ were well conceived. I’m a sucker for women/girls who start a story at odds and gradually their relationships either fester or change for the better and this is certainly one of those stories. Obviously, this is a complicated situation for these characters to be in, and it’s heartbreaking to see certain relationships get broken down as the story progresses. I was a little concerned, at one point, that a character was going to be portrayed as ‘less-than’ Lei because she believes herself to have fallen in love with the King, however, this was handled exactly as I would have wanted it to, and instead becomes something of a teachable moment.

So on to the romance, because it’s certainly an important aspect of this book. I’ve read a fair few YA fantasy books with F/F pairings, but I’ve not read many where that is a core aspect of the story. I found it truly compelling to read Lei’s discovery that she is attracted to a woman, it somehow manages to feel like that amazing revelation but not feel like an overdramatised moment, it’s not voyeuristic for the reader, it’s simply one woman falling in love with another. There are some YA tropes in there that some readers may not enjoy, personally, I’m here for a trope, especially when it comes to romance so I was head over heels for this couple.

I wasn’t expecting the plot of this book to go in quite the direction that it did. It isn’t drastically different from what one might anticipate, but there are some moments where I was genuinely surprised by various elements. This was particularly significant as I was expecting this to be quite a formulaic story. I actually hugely enjoyed the plot (perhaps ‘enjoy’ isn’t the right verb here…some of it is hard to read), finding it intriguing and inspiring. There is a lot of violence, particularly violence against women, often in a sexual context so if you aren’t comfortable or safe reading those passages then I suggest you either give this one a miss, or enlist a willing friend (I’ll do it if you drop me a message) to make a list of pages or passages to skim over.

The one thing that stopped this from being a five-star read, for me, was that the ending felt a little bit rushed. It’s something I seem to be in a bit of a phase with at the moment, a book has a wonderful slow build and then the last chapters/epilogue feel as though you blink and you miss them. I would have benefitted from more of a slow wrap-up, particularly since this is a standalone.

That’s entirely a matter of personal preference, however, and it may just be indicative that need to slow down when I’m reading the end of a book. Overall, I think this is a shining example of the kinds of YA fantasy books that should be being published, it doesn’t make any excuses, it doesn’t make apologies, it’s wonderfully diverse and it is hugely compelling to read.

Final note, I’m a white lady so I can’t comment on the representation of Asian characters in this story. It is worth noting that the author is half Chinese so this is an ownvoices book. I have also found a few ownvoices reviews which I suggest you check out, for opinions far more knowledgeable than mine! I’ll hopefully come back and add to this list as and when I read reviews (since I’m guessing quite a few will come post-publication).

Forever and Everly

Read At Midnight

My rating: 4/5 stars

I received a free digital advanced review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.

What say you? Is this on your TBR? Let me know in the comments below!

J

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