BOOK REC: Girls of Storm and Shadow (Girls of Paper and Fire #2) – Natasha Ngan

Author: Natasha Ngan (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton

Genre: Epic fantasy, LGBT+ fiction, YA

See also: Girls of Paper and Fire

The Girls of Paper and Fire did the impossible. They escaped.

But out in the unforgiving wild, hunted like prey, Lei and Wren learn that the most terrifying prisons have no walls.

Lei, the naive country girl who became a royal courtesan, is now known as the Moonchosen, the commoner who managed to do what no one else could. But slaying the cruel Demon King wasn’t the end of the plan – it’s just the beginning. Now Lei and her warrior love Wren must travel the kingdom to gain support from the far-flung rebel clans. The journey is made even more treacherous thanks to a heavy bounty on Lei’s head, as well as insidious doubts that threaten to tear Lei and Wren apart from within.

Meanwhile, an evil plot to eliminate the rebel uprising is taking shape, fueled by dark magic and vengeance. Will Lei succeed in her quest to overthrow the monarchy and protect her love for Wren, or will she fall victim to the sinister magic that seeks to destroy her?

Much like with Children of Virtue and Vengeance, this took me longer to read than it really should have done, and a good portion of that was anxiety about how things were going to go. The first book was brutal, violent, dark. I needed a resolution for the characters, sure, but I understand how trilogies work. Things always get significantly worse before they get better, and the ending of part 1 is never, ever as straightforward as it appears. There may be some SPOILERS in this recommendation.

Yes, Wren and Lei found each other and managed to escape, but they left their fellow Paper Girls behind in the middle of a demonic court that is in uproar, and furious. They are on the run from a class that is both physically and politically stronger than they are, with no idea who can or can’t be trusted. Wren has been training for this all her life, but Lei has not. It’s tense, and there’s little time for them – or the reader – to relax as they try and push towards their end goals.

What Ngan does, wonderfully, is explore how the end goals may not quite align in the details, even if the broad strokes seem to be the same. What sort of collateral damage is okay? What is the exact ideal outcome? Does it justify the means they use to get there?

The thing about a passionate love affair of the sort shown in book 1, where the trysts are secret, where there isn’t really time for slow discussions or a gentle building of affection, is that when things slow down slightly – when you are removed from the pressure-cooker in which the relationship began – it can become clear that you haven’t actually talked about a lot of things. In normal circumstances this could be opinions on children, or pets, or music. In this setting it could mean “where do you stand on ‘leave no man behind'” or “what’re your thoughts on assassination”.

Lei and Wren find themselves sent out as part of a small, stealthy party, hoping to try and convince leaders of Demonic families around the country to join with them as the Demon King has been removed from power, and to try and negotiate a fairer, more peaceful path for the future. Except, as they travel the world, without information on the changing situation, they are behind the times and wrong-footed as news changes daily. For Lei, this means reconsidering their approach, but for Wren, her path is set and she will stick to it no matter what.

As is typical for part two of a trilogy, there are betrayals, double-crosses, upsets and failures. Some characters deal with this better than others. I appreciated the use of a small group under high stress in deadly situations to explore the dynamics of this – both bonded through stress and survival of traumatic experiences, they are also not immune to the paranoia of outside influences as they discover through drip-feeds more information about the world, but also about others in their group. It’s a different kind of pressure-cooker from book one, and it generates different results. From frying pan to fire, I suppose.

There is less explicitly traumatic material in this book in terms of sexual assault, particularly compared to book one, but Ngan never shies away from acknowledging that these girls have been through horrors, that they have been injured psychologically, and that they are Not Handling It Well. Some people around them acknowledge that, some take advantage of it.

I enjoyed seeing the scope of the world expanded here. Girls of Paper and Fire is very clear that it is set not in one specific country so much as within a broader South-East Asia with references to a variety of cultures within that. Seeing that explored more explicitly – taking us from mountains to plains to archipelagos to deserts – is a wonderful way to further cement this ideal away from references to cultural dress and individual appearance. This also adds another layer to the issues of the caste system introduced in book one (and the tricky situation of trying to find a solution that appeases all three castes, and where loyalties lie) with the added complexities of each area having its own system of beliefs and requirements for government. Can the country be unified in a way that will please everyone? Or is it simply too big to exist without an overtly dominant hand? This explored in another way in The Poppy War series, but that was a series designed to mirror real-world politics to the very gruesome and gritty end.

Both with this series, and the Children of Blood and Bone series, I wonder if the authors will lean that way too, or whether by book three they will want to provide a hopeful catharsis, an image of peace. The characters in both of these are inherently flawed but are trying their best to strive to make their worlds better. Book three will reveal whether they succeed or not.

I’m certain the ending will be magnificent and powerful, either way, but deep down I hope that the ending is happy.

Briefly:

  • A second book in the series, Ngan turns up the temperature and the risk on the characters, testing them and their relationships to the very limits for better or for worse.
  • There are some moments of peace in the book, brief lulls in the violence. These are shortlived but impactful and a welcome relief. They also serve to make the return to the conflict much harsher.
  • I cunningly delayed reading this until book 3 was released so that I don’t have to wait too long to find out how it all ends. My little heart couldn’t take the tension.

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