REVIEW: Girls of Paper and Fire – Natasha Ngan

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Author: Natasha Ngan (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Genre: Epic fantasy, LGBT+ fiction, YA

Buy Now: ebook | paperback | hardcover

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.

This book was one I put on my Birthday and Christmas list last year. I’d seen a lot of hype about it, and I was excited. One thing that particularly impressed me about this book, before I had even started reading it, was the fact that there were two separate content warnings, and a detailed introduction from the author again providing content warnings, but also explaining her reasoning behind this and giving details of places for readers to seek help should they have faced any of the issues raised in the book. This reminded me a little of The Poppy War, where the author discussed in her blog her reasonings behind including one particular chapter – although it seems unfortunate that the warnings were not included on the book, as with Girls of Paper and Fire, as I think many readers would be unlikely to find the blog until after they had read the book.

It’s good that there is a warning. There is nothing particularly graphic in terms of sex, but the violence surrounding it is at times quite brutal (early spoiler: the dog dies in a pretty gruesome way a few pages in), and there is just a constant threat of violation and control which follows the narrative the entire time. It’s psychologically exhausting, and I can only imagine how much worse it would be if I were unlucky enough to have triggers.

When I started reading this, I also started rewatching Empresses in the Palace, a Chinese historical drama which is currently (February 19) available on UK Netflix, but which I also got on DVD for Christmas. The theme is similar – girls are required to audition to become part of the Emperor’s harem for the honour of their family. Huan, the main character, doesn’t wish to be chosen, but she is and finds herself an unwilling concubine. The series is completely lush and beautiful, although only available in an abridged version outside of China, which is at times a little garbled for losing some details.

The reason I reflect on this is because, whilst Girls of Paper and Fire is a fantasy, both approach a similar subject matter, and portray a similar reticence between the main characters when they are first introduced to the harem. Except, Huan is there out of obligation to her family; Lei is there because she was abducted and her family threatened if she did not comply. In Empresses in the Palace, Huan does what she can to avoid being called, but begins to form a real attachment to the Emperor when he finds her in the gardens and pretends to be someone else so she will speak with him. In Girls of Paper and Fire, Lei dreads being called, but knows it is inevitable, a constant weight for her to carry around. At times I hoped that things would work out for Lei the way they worked out for Huan (although, if you’ve seen Empresses in the Palace, you’ll know I’ve simplified things… a lot), but the Demon King has no softer side. He is violent, a bully, and potentially mad. I enjoyed reading this and reflecting on the contrast between the two stories. Perhaps Huan’s story is more in tune with other Paper Girls, but it is a complete contrast to Lei’s.

There is a clear caste system in place in the book, with Moon Caste – full demons – at the top of the pecking order, then Steel Caste half-demons, and finally Paper Caste humans as the subservient underclass. This is an interesting and fun reversal of fortunes from the society in Empress of All Seasons, which put demons as the underclass, and humans on top. The politics playing out around Lei during her time in the palace are fascinating, and I’m looking forward to seeing how this is developed in the sequel.

Lei does get a love story, with Wren, another of the paper girls. This is lovely and tender and a little heartbreaking, and extremely tense because of the constant threat of discovery, of retribution, of how it could all be taken away from them at any moment. I just wanted to relax into it and have them be safe and happy, but instead I was continually terrified that it was all going to end at any second. I was also second-guessing the motives of everyone else in the book – who was going to betray them? It was inevitable someone would, but who would it be?

I think, considering Lei’s lesbianism, there could be something strongly allegorical to be read into the fact that the Demon King is literally a monster. In some countries there are still instances of “corrective rape” used against lesbians, this personification of outright menace, cruelty, and disgust seems ideally placed to be representative of this within the book. The Demon King is more than just one man, one demon – perhaps he is supposed to be representative of this repugnant culture and give a face to something pervasive and wrong within society. In doing so, this gives us something tangible to fight, to defeat. Perhaps I’m reading a little into this, but I feel that there is something to be considered in the fact that this book is not just about rape, but specifically the rape of a gay woman, a violation across multiple levels.

Perhaps the only thing I would have wished for would be more time with the Demon King, more time exploring his madness and mania. But that would not have worked structurally for Lei’s narrative. He is too volatile, too violent for Lei to have spent more time with him outside of their “appointments”, and I wouldn’t wish more intimate time with him on Lei. If there had been a way to contrive her spending time with him in a non-sexual way,  a way to explore fully the unravelling of his clearly already threadbare sanity.

In the end, though, I feel like perhaps he works well as a looming threat rather than as a real character. It lends to the metaphor, that he is the actualisation of the persistent threat that, really, all women feel at the back of their minds – when you’re walking alone, at night, and pass a group of men, that feeling. Nothing may come of it, but the threat is still there, just as the Demon King may not be physically present and still be constantly in Lei’s mind.

There was a lot I loved about this book – particularly that Ikhara seemed to cover the whole of Asia, from India to Malaysia, China to Japan, and some of the different cultures were seen within the wider world of the story. It made the kingdom feel vast, and gave the reader a full sense of the scale of what the Demon King was doing to the world, and the potential for repercussions if his madness took full hold.

I’m looking forward to the sequel, and to seeing how this is developed.

Briefly:

  • A historical fantasy which takes cultures from across Asia to provide an interesting and broad world, and presents a sympathetic main character in Lei.
  • This is a book which deals with rape, and instead of sugar coating things, makes sure the threat and aftermath are clearly dealt with. It also gives plenty of pre-warnings and, in the introduction, provides details of places the reader can turn to for support should they need it.
  • It’s a book which maintains tension and threat whilst also providing some wonderful soft moments between Lei and the people important to her. This is not an easy, relaxing read, but there are definitely some beautiful moments within it.

Rating: 4/5 – I feel like it is hard to rate this fully without seeing how the story will finish, but this start is so strong I have faith it will continue.

17 thoughts on “REVIEW: Girls of Paper and Fire – Natasha Ngan

  1. Bexa says:

    This sounds like a tense and gripping read, full of suspense! It’s good there are so many pre-warnings from the author about the content and where to find support if needed. Yikes, the bit about the dog sounds really shocking. It’s nice that even though the book sounds quite heavy going in places, there are still beautiful moments between the characters. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Claire, interesting review! Hope you enjoy the sequel 🙂 ❤ xx

    Bexa | http://www.hellobexa.com

    Like

    • Claire says:

      Yeah, it’s unusual in that Lei is quite powerless for most of the book. She has inner strength, but we live in her feelings, her mind, which is so tormented and tortured by her situation. The sequel will be very interesting!

      Like

  2. Ashley Firth says:

    A great review! Like you, I’m also a fan of content warnings. I’m always buying books for my daughter and, although she’s practically an adult now, I’d hate to present her with something graphic! The definitely sounds like the sort of book I’d love to read xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lindsey says:

    Fantastic review! I’ve seen this crop up quite a lot recently but I had no idea what it was about. I loved reading your detailed review – definitely one I’m going to be looking out for! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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