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.
Girls of Paper and Fire is a YA novel by Natasha Ngan, set in a fictional fantasy world where nine girls are chosen to serve the King — they are to be his concubines.
Before the story has even begun, there are trigger warnings — Please be aware that this book contains scenes of violence and sexual assault — and an author’s note where Natasha addresses the reasons behind the story and the importance of telling stories like this. I think readers who have experienced violent pasts will appreciate these notices, and it will help them decide whether or not this is a book they would like to read.
“A high voice cuts through the quiet. It’s the girl we heard outside, Blue. She’s tall, even standing next to Madam Himura, with narrow shoulders and glossy azure-black hair, straight and smooth. Her features match the sharpness in her voice, angled cheekbones like two blades and narrow eyes shadowed with paint glinting out from beneath blunt bangs.”
Girls of Paper and Fire is a trilogy with an Asian-inspired setting, and Natasha leaves many questions unanswered to entice readers to continue with the series. Yes, there are some triggering scenes but it’s written delicately and is not too graphic. The characters discuss their feelings about what happens, and they have the opportunity to think and talk with each other about how they’re handling their situation.
17-year-old Lei is brave and outspoken, unwilling to accept her circumstances because others deem it to be an ‘honour’. She fights for what she wants, and she doesn’t want to be the King’s concubine. She wants to return to her family and she also wants to find out what happened to her mother years earlier when she was kidnapped.
Girls of Paper and Fire explores friendship and love, and the girls in the book are all very supportive and grow together over the course of the novel. Yes, there are fights and betrayals and not all of the girls are close friends, but they’re all going through this very scary situation and they come together in support of each other.
Lei falls in love with the secretive Wren, and this same-sex relationship is explored with sensitivity and authenticity. It’s heartwarming, reading about these two girls finding love and happiness when they’re surrounded by terror and threats.
“Silence, and rainfall, and Wren watching me with uneasy eyes. It’s the first time I’ve seen her undone like this, so unsure. The collar of her nightdress has fallen low, exposing the swell of her breasts, and from under it her bare legs are long and glossy in the moonlight. I think of her and the wolf, what intimate moment I might have interrupted. My gut twists.”
The writing and pacing is tight and very dialogue heavy, but the chapters flow and the prose is swift. Tension builds throughout the novel right up until its dramatic climax. We’re left wanting to know more. At times, the supporting characters were more interesting than Lei, but she’s still an engaging protagonist.
I enjoyed the story and am looking forward to the next instalment. This book isn’t going to be appropriate for every reader, so all I’d advise is to read the author’s note in the beginning so that you’re aware of what’s to come.
Thank you to the publisher for mailing me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
Girls of Paper and Fire
Hachette Book Publishers