Girls of Paper And Fire by Natasha Ngan is a brutal and harrowing story, mixed with gorgeous writing and a lush setting and a heroine you can’t help but adore. It’s a dark premise, but it’s handled so well, and it’s also important to discuss. And how amazing it is to see YA shelves being filled with more and more diverse fantasy tales?! This is rooted in Asian lore and myths and also has a sweet and lovely queer girl romance, along with demons and rebellions, secrets and assassins, and women who fight back.
The story follows Lei, who is a member of the Paper caste — the lowest of lows and also, disgracefully, human. The world is ruled by demons, with a demon king on the throne who has zero tolerance for rebellions. Her life is pretty quiet and simple as she lives with her father since her mother was taken by the palace some years ago. But then the palace guards return, this time for Lei. He’s heard tales of her intriguing golden eyes and he wants to own her too, nevermind how Lei feels about it. With no option but to go (or die), Lei is taken to the palace and turned into one of the king’s concubines. She and eight other girls are trained to serve him, learning to charm and be delicate ladies with manners. But Lei wants to find out what happened to her mother and she’d rather see this king destroyed instead of taking more girls. Amidst trying to stay afloat in this quiet but backstabbing world, she starts to fall for one of the other girls in the king’s consort: the mysterious and beautiful Wren, who is definitely more than she seems. Lei is determined not to lie down and let the world walk over her. It’s time to show the world she’s not made of paper, but instead: fire.
I particularly enjoyed the world building Ngan gives us. It’s intense and well-developed, making it a delight to explore as we learn the history and why the demon king is in power. It had a lot of typical average-YA-fantasy things going in, but wrote them in a captivating fresh voice. The inspiration is from the author’s own Chinese and Malaysian background and I think that’s incredibly special too. You can tell how much heart and love went into this telling!
The premise is ultimately very dark, centring around a demon king who murders humans and rapes his consorts. While it never gets graphic, it is also careful to unpack and discuss this horror. I’m actually really glad the author is dealing with this dark topic for teens because, as she said in her author’s note: While I realise these are hard discussions, especially for teens, it is of vital important we have them. Books can be safe places to explore difficult topics. While we cannot shelter young people from being exposed to sexual violence, whether through lived experience or indirectly, we can give them a way to safely engage with and reflect upon these issues. I hope Girls provides such a space.” This is so so true. Teens are aware and affected by these issues TODAY and they need discussion, not sheltering. It’s a horrible and harrowing topic, but handled with care.
I also loved the inclusion of romance between Lei and Wren! They’re so sweet together and I loved how their initial attraction grows into a deeper and lovely bond. It’s also special to see lgbtqia+ romances starring in fantasy books, because that’s still something we’re starved of!
Lei is such a winning protagonist too. She’s so real. She’s unsure and anxious, and prone to impulsive decisions. I loved her brave and fiery side, but also how she wasn’t stony or closed off. Her heart was on her sleeve and it was refreshing to have a heroine who is equal parts brave and awkward.
Honestly these girls just stole the whole book and are here to steal your hearts as well. It’s a gripping and emotional read, fantastically written and engaging. It features people who are cruel and people who are kind. It’s no light fluffy fantasy, but it’s one that will stay with you and make you think.