Girls of Paper and Fire is a stunning work of fantasy fiction. Set in a realm divided by caste, humans fall at the very bottom of the hierarchy. Known as the Paper caste, they are forced into menial jobs and manual labour by a class system that props up the powerful Moon caste.
Growing up in a rural village, Lei has been sheltered from the conflict by small town life – except for one devastating military raid that took away her mother and broke her family apart. Working together as herbalists, Lei’s family has managed to make a new life for themselves. Until the horns sound and the military returns.
Intrigued by rumours of a golden-eyed girl, General Yu has come to fetch Lei to the palace. She is given a choice: come quietly to begin her new life as a concubine, or watch as what’s left of her family is executed. Such are the ‘choices’ offered to women in this world. Court intrigues and power politics are a world away from the small village where Lei grew up, but she has to find her footing – and quickly. Though it’s a fantasy story, filled with magic and adventure, Girls of Paper and Fire shows patriarchy at its cruellest.
For a stand-alone novel, Girls of Paper and Fire is ambitious in scale – but Natasha Ngan’s imagination is extraordinary. Like all the best fantasy books, Ngan’s world extends far beyond what we witness through Lei’s eyes. The glimpses of history, culture, and politics add a rich texture to the setting that few debuts can boast of. Admittedly, there are points when this world is a little far-fetched. Not only do demons live alongside humans, but the two species have romantic relationships. In fanfiction terms, that’s a bit squicky. The result of these unions is the Steel caste, creatures whose appearances are a strange mixture of animal and human. It’s a lot to wrap your head around.
Girls of Paper and Fire is at its most believable – and enjoyable – when focused on the lives of the Paper Girls. Eight young women from across the land are chosen for their exquisite looks and charms to spend a year as concubines to the Demon King. The role of Paper Girl is the most prestigious on offer to a young woman of the Paper caste – powerful families vie to have their daughters chosen, with the hope of adding to their influence at court.
The Paper Girls are property of the Demon King. He uses them as he pleases, and delivers brutal punishment at the slightest hint of disobedience. Reduced to sexual objects, the Paper Girls have no rights and no social standing independent of the Demon King. They can’t assert ownership of their own bodies, and can’t refuse a night with the king – not without risking a fate worse than death. There are times when Girls of Paper and Fire is a challenging read. But what makes it worth persevering is the bond between the young women. Despite the rivalries and petty dramas, the Paper Girls quickly realise that they’re all in the same awful situation. And the friendships that blossom, the way women support women, is a highlight of this book.
As she learns the arts of a Paper Girl, Lei grows close with one young woman in particular: Wren. Elegant and fierce, Wren captures Lei’s imagination – and then her heart. It is the romance at the core of Girls of Paper and Fire that makes this book so readable. Lei and Wren move from quiet moments of rebellion to acts of deliberate defiance, until their bond brings about a chance to shatter the whole system – what’s not to love about two lesbians having the power to end injustice?
Though plenty of Young Adult fiction shies away from sex, Girls of Paper and Fire is not one of those books. Fortunately, no contrived set of circumstances keep Lei and Wren apart. Those sensual encounters might leave some readers a little breathless. Not even the threat of death upon discovery can get in the way of the love between Lei and Wren.
This book is guaranteed to get your pulse racing. And, given that women of colour are underrepresented in both lesfic and fantasy (and every other part of publishing), it’s exciting to see Girls of Paper and Fire released by a mainstream publishing house. Natasha Ngan’s Southeast Asian heritage has shaped the plot, characters, and culture within her book. Whether you’re here for #ownvoices, quality romance, or epic fantasy, this story doesn’t disappoint.