Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan (eProof)
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.
Natasha Ngan's lyrical, searing, visceral fantasy, Girls of Paper and Fire, will remind us how precious freedom is--and the price we must pay to achieve it. From Goodreads.
Trigger Warning: This book features kidnap, sex trafficking, sexual assault, rape, violence, sex shaming, and animal cruelty.
I've been looking forward to reading Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan ever since I first heard of it; a UKYA, queer, asian inspired high fantasy? Sign. Me. Up! Unsurprisingly, it was incredible, but it was the surprises that had me completely adoring this book!
In a world of demons and humans, where demons are superior to humans, Lei is Paper caste, fully human, who lives in a small village working at her father's herb shop. Seven years ago, there was a raid on her village, in which her mother was taken from them, the grief of which Lei has never got over. This year, the soldiers are back, and it's Lei they take. Having heard rumours of her golden eyes, a General has stolen her away as a gift to the King, in order to apologise for a mistake he made, believing the King would be pleased by her eyes. Lei is to be a Paper Girl, eight girls trained to be the Demon King's concubines, the highest honour bestowed upon a Paper caste girl, but this year there is to be nine. But Lei refuses to let her life be dictated to her, and when she falls in love with one of her fellow Paper Girls, Wren, their secret relationship and embracing their love is her secret rebellion. But Lei's life at court shows her just how cruel the Demon King is, and just how terribly treated the Paper caste are. When she discovers a plot to overthrow the King, Lei realises she can't just sit back and accept her fate, but must do what she can to help, for all Paper castes everywhere.
'We might be Paper Girls, easily torn and written upon. The very title we're given suggests that we are blank, waiting to be filled. But what the Demon King and his court do not understand is that paper is flammable.
And there is a fire catching among us.' (p273-274)*
Oh my god, I can't tell you just how incredible this book is! The world building is just so lush, heavily inspired by Ngan's own Chinese Malaysian background. The food, the outfits, the decoration! It's all just so gorgeous! But there's also the people of Ikhara; the Paper castes, who are fully human, and mulitcultural humans at that; the Steel caste, who are humans with some demon qualities; and Moon caste, full demons. But in this world, the demons aren't what you would normally think of when hearing the word "demon". The Moon caste are humanoid animals. The King, for example, is a bull-form; their are aspects of his face that are human, but his nose and jaw are more bovine, he's covers is dark hair, and he has hooves. What I found really fascinating about Girls is how it took an idea we've seen in fantasy before, of a world inhabited by humans and creatures, and flipped the hierarchy on it's head. Normally, humans reign supreme, and anything "less than" or "other than" human are monsters to be killed or controlled. In Girls, the hierarchy places humans at the bottom, with Steel caste demons above them, and Moon caste demons at the top. And it's not just a class system, it's prejudice and discrimination. Two hundred years ago, the first Demon King invaded and took control of all of Ikhara, and then put everyone in their place, his own prejudice against humans putting them at the bottom. And though not every Steel or Moon caste demon are prejudiced against humans, there's a hell of a lot of them that are. Humans are nothing, they are "keeda" - worms. And because they are nothing, the demons can treat them however they want. They can raid their villages and kill their people. They can kidnap women and give them as gifts. They can dress up becoming one of the King's concubines as an honour, but the fact is you are to have sex with the King whenever he wishes, however he wishes, and you cannot say no. It is your job to please him. You are not to have sex with anyone else. You are not to fall in love. Paper castes are to accept their lot in life, and not complain about what befalls them, because doing so can lead to death. It's terrifying and it's horrific. And, to be honest, it reminded me a lot of racism and slavery. In it's way, Girls holds up a mirror to our own world and our own history, shining a light on how the privileged white treat and have treated people of colour. And it's disgusting.
'It seems that to most demons, being Paper caste already makes you less human.' (p264)*
But we have Lei. What I loved about Lei is that she is just an ordinary girl. She's not the chosen one, she's not anything special, she's just a Paper caste girl who lived in a poor village, working in her father's herb shop. A peasant whose life would have continued on at the shop, in her little village, a quiet, unimpressive life, but a life that was hers. Her life might not be something readers can relate to, but we can relate to the fact that she is just a girl, just living her life. And in that, she's all of us, she's every-girl. But then she's forced to become a Paper Girl, and her life is turned upside down. All the other Paper Girls are there because they want to be, because they've fed in to the lies about it being an honour, and they're happy to have the life of luxury they now do. But this is not Lei's choice. She never chose to become a Paper Girl, she never wanted - never wants - to have sex with the King. She is trapped, she cannot escape, and her terror is palpable. But she has people around her who get it, and are fighting their own fight.
'"[Men] have all the power, anyway."
The look Zelle gives me is sharp. "Do they? Yes, they like to think they're in charge, ordering us around and taking women for their own whenever they fancy. But is that true power? They can take and steal and break all they want, but there is one thing they have no control over. Our emotions," she says at my nonplussed look. "Our feelings. Our thoughts. None of them will ever be able to control the way we feel. Our minds and our hearts are our own. That is our power, Nine. Never forget it."' (p151)*
And Lei does choose to give her heart to another. Oh, the romance between Lei and Wren is just so beautiful! Especially given the circumstances they find themselves in. Despite the danger they would be in if anyone found out, their love is pure, and their only light in the darkness. And it's their love that makes Lei strong. It gives her something - something good, something she has now - to fight for. Her love, her choice, her freedom.
But there are also others to fight for. What she sees at the court, what she experiences, how she is treated, how the King treats his Paper Girls, what she witnessed seven years ago... at first she just wanted to get away for herself, back to her family, back to her own life. But as time goes on and she witnesses some truly horrific things, and it all just fans the flames of her anger, and she realises that she could never un-see or un-know all that she discovers at the palace.
'More than anything, I want to be free. Not just free of the palace, but free once I'm outside of it, too. How can that happen in a world where its King allows demons to do whatever they want to those they deem inferior? How can I live in happiness when I know now what happens to Paper castes all across Ikhara?' (p295)*
And this ordinary peasant girl - this every-girl, this girl of colour, this queer girl - chooses herself, chooses her love, chooses her people, and decides to take a stand. Against the King. Against the demons. Against her abusers and oppressors. Against the patriarchy. She becomes a cog in the machine that is the rebellion, and in doing so, she changes everything. I can't tell you how emotional it was - especially as sexual assault survivor - to see her take the decision to fight back. To not accept things, to not roll over, but to fight. And to me, she is us, she is fighting for us, and watching her become this resilient young woman was so empowering and so emotional. It was beautiful, and it was incredible.
I just want to briefly talk about some of the side characters. Lill, Lei's Steel caste 11-year-old maid at the palace, is adorable! She's the cutest little girl, although she is young and innocent, and doesn't realise that Lei doesn't actually want to be there, and thinks it is an honour that Lei is a Paper Girl. But she and Lei form this gorgeous older and younger sister relationship that is just to die for, and I love them! There's also the relationship that Lei forms with Aoki, one of her fellow Paper Girls. Aoki is 16, but is quite innocent and young for her age, and Lei feels protective of her. They form a really beautiful relationship, but one that is tested when Aoki starts to drink the cool-aid and believes in the King and all he does. I love Aoki, and went through such a roller coaster of emotions for her. I just wanted to take her away, give her a cuddle, and really explain things to her. But it's a fascinating and complex relationship to watch.
Girls of Paper and Fire is an absolutely fantastic high fantasy, and god, the ending! I can't say anything, but oh my god, I need book two now! I am so excited to see where the story leads in book two! Because the ending was epic, and oh my god, the next book is going to be unbelievable! I absolutely cannot recommend Girls enough; it's an absolutely amazing UKYA high fantasy, and not one to miss.
Thank you to Hodder & Stoughton via NetGalley for the eProof.
*All quotes have been checked against my bought final copy.
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