Title: Girls of Paper and Fire (2018)
Author: Natasha Ngan
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Read: 4th – 8th February 2019
Genre: fantasy; young-adult; LGBTQ
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
“Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honour they could hope for…and the most demeaning. This year, there’s a ninth. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire. Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most persecuted class of people in Ikhara. Ten years ago, her mother was snatched by the royal guards, and her fate remains unknown. Now, the guards are back and this time it’s Lei they’re after – the girl with the golden eyes, whose rumoured beauty has piqued the king’s interest. Over weeks of training in the opulent but oppressive palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit a king’s consort. There, Lei 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.” (Synopsis from publisher)
Girls of Paper and Fire is a brutal story told of an equally brutal world. The book doesn’t shy away from the topic or, even for a second, show the world through rose tinted glasses: this is a book, plain and simple, about girls becoming sex slaves for a tyrannical ruler. Such a role is presented as an honour to the girls who are chosen from amongst the lowest social class in Ikhara, partly as a way of showing that the class exists to serve the king and partly as a form of subjugation of that class. But once the girls are brought to the palace they are clothed luxuriously, fed copiously, and instructed in many different things including, sickeningly, the best ways to please their king if they are called to join him that night in his rooms. The book is marketed as The Selection meets Memoirs of a Geisha, but with an emphasis on exploring the effect of this servitude on the girls involved and what happens when a selected girl says ‘no’ to the situation she’s put into and rebels, in whatever small way she can.
“I know it now with a certainty that has fitted into the lost core at the heart of me, as hard and angular as my hope was soft and shimmering. The King will not have me.”
The author seems keen to encourage her readers to focus their attentions too on how, even in these situations, people can band together and get each other through it, in whatever way they can. I enjoyed the friendship between the various paper girls and the way that the author explored how their dynamic could change due to perceived jealousies or insecurities about their own standing within court. Seeing it from a first person perspective meant we did see some girl hate for… not a lot of reason, it seemed, and this is something I’ve become a lot more sensitive about, especially in stories like this where there is such an opportunity for girls to nurture friendships in this horrible situation they’re put into and to boost each other rather than tear each other down. However, having them all get along hunky dory from the very beginning wouldn’t have been very realistic, I suppose, as teenage girls, in particular, are capable of being so cutting and bitchy that to not represent this would be disingenuous. This is why the relationship which develops in this book is so precious but, for me, it felt a tiny bit insta-lovey. I appreciate the sapphic tones and the rep is A+++ but I couldn’t deny that I would be calling it out as somewhat insta-love if this were a heterosexual relationship.
“Instead of disappearing, she makes me feel reappeared. Reimagined. Her touch shapes me, draws out the boldness that had been hiding in my core.”
Unfortunately, I think what I wanted from this book was more. I wanted it to be longer, the world building more fleshed out, the politics better explored, the caste system explained more, the characters more developed. I wanted to learn more about the other girls – of the eight other paper girls I feel like we only really truly get to know one, maybe two at best, of them. The others remain shadowy characters that aren’t fully developed and although there are moments of character development during scenes with heightened drama (or when the author needed that character to act as a way to info-dump), we still never really get to know any of them. I think this is, in large part, because the story is told in first person narrator and our narrator, Lei, doesn’t really get to know many of her fellow paper girls.
“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.“
Similarly, I found the peripheral characters to the girls’ experience at the palace to be intriguing but woefully underdeveloped – I’m thinking of Kenzo in particular, but even the antagonist, the infamous Bull King himself, seemed to feel like a caricature by the end of it all. He was violent and he was brutal and scary and he took what he wanted (girls included) and that was… pretty much all he was. I’m not saying that villains in a story should be made sympathetic, or that there should be a justification or explaining away of his violence (far from it), but rather his motivations (other than a simple ‘just because I can’) felt undeveloped to me and we never really learnt how he’s managed to keep hold of a kingdom for so long by mere brute strength. For my liking, the character felt like just that – a character – and his actions and motivations seemed to lack a logic.
“Perhaps being a traitor can be a good thing if you are betraying those who deserve it.”
Having said all of that, I can’t deny that the LGBTQ representation that this story offers is likely a large draw of the book and that element of it was indeed very well done. I suppose my slight disappointment with this book is actually down to my own expectations: I expected a wider Asian-inspired fantasy story, I didn’t expect it to (mostly) be an LGBTQ romance with a fantasy setting. That’s on me, that’s not the book. I wanted more politics and court drama and scheming and, instead, I ended up with a much more horrifying (and no less important) story of sexual violence and physical abuse, a court that did not overlook this arrangement but rather celebrated it through a yearly gathering of ‘paper girls’ who were solely chosen to be concubines to the king, whether they wanted it or not. The book carries a trigger warning for these elements, and rightly so; however, it’s clear that the author’s own experiences ensured that the traumatising events of the book were explored in a sensitive way and were never gratuitous.
“Her kisses heal the parts of me that the King broke. They tell me: You are strong, Lei. You are beautiful. You are mine. And, always, most important: You are yours.”
Amongst this horrifying backdrop blossoms, as the book’s blurb promised, a forbidden romance – at times, the prose became a little saccharine for my taste, but it is this awakening of new feelings in narrator Lei that ultimately propels the action of the book. Ultimately, I just wanted more from Girls of Paper and Fire, and from Lei, because she’s clearly more than capable of it. Perhaps I will get the ‘more’ I so desperately wanted in the next book as, given that ending, I’m sure this will grow into a series in which some of my own questions from this book will be answered.
“Falling in love is the most dangerous thing women like us can do.”