Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
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.
TW: violence and sexual abuse (Goodreads).
Girls of Paper and Fire is nothing like anything else I’ve ever read. It’s incredibly diverse with a lush setting and a cast of characters (I love Lei, I love Wren, I love everyone except the men) that stand off the page, it has romance I actually cared about, and a ruthless plot that takes no prisoners. Natasha Ngan crafted a world with so much background and build it was hard to believe that I wasn’t there in it as well; I honestly haven’t read such fascinating world-building in a long time.
This was like a darker, higher-staked, and more diverse The Selection by Kiera Cass, which is basically what I pitched it as to my friend. Reading it was like reading one of my old favorites except everyone was falling apart and nothing was okay anymore. And wow. There’s power in that.
Natasha Ngan writes with such a powerful voice. I was enveloped in her writing. This novel screamed own-voices and just…that made it so much more real. This wasn’t written by someone trying to imitate someone else’s experience, but by someone who knew every bit of trauma Lei had. And that was so obvious on page, and definitely not negatively.
I listened to a podcast interview with Natasha Ngan on Females in Fantasy where she said Girls of Paper and Fire is a story about female empowerment about female friendship and those bonds against the patriarchy. These girls bond together despite the horrors of their time as Paper Girls and while they may not see eye to eye, there’s a connection with the shared trauma.
Now, I cannot speak to much of the representation here, but I have heard many people say it was wonderful. I suggest looking at their reviews for more insight on how the narrative helped them.
I cannot recommend this book enough, but be aware of the trigger warnings. It was not as graphic as I expected, but it’s definitely heavy.