Girls of Paper and Fire is a tender portrait of love amidst violence. Striking and spirited, but with some uncomfortable messages.
Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most cruel.
But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.
In this lush fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards still haunts her. Now, the guards are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after–the girl whose golden eyes have piqued the king’s interest.
Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable–she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.
I was nervous about this one.
I never read books I think I’ll probably hate. I think setting out to hate-read is unproductive and bad for the soul, and besides–who has the time?
But I was very nervous about Girls of Paper and Fire. I was probably as skeptical about the book as I could be and still decide to read it. I’d heard great things and wanted to see what the hype was about, but I was getting major Grace and Fury vibes from the synopsis (and if you know me, you know that’s not a good sign) and could forsee it going badly in so many ways.
Turns out the book only went badly in a few of those ways. Mostly, Natasha Ngan knocked out of the park an incredibly difficult premise. Making this book captivating and exciting without making entertainment out of the suffering of (female, POC) characters is a fine line to walk, and she did it.
This could easily have been oppression porn, drawing power from the shock value and weight of sexual assault. Instead, the beating heart of the story is hope–not an empty, girl-power message, but a deep, earnest belief that there is meaning even in suffering. This is the story about the parts of a person that are unreachable by the world, and the quiet resistence of loving yourself in a world that wants you to hate yourself.
The MVP in Girls of Paper and Fire is Wren, both within the story and as a character. Mysterious, beautiful, strong, and far more fleshed-out than any other character, Wren is one of my all-time favorite YA love interests.
This story would not have been the same with any other gender configuration anchoring the romance. Ngan isn’t simply swapping in a badass female warrior instead of the male equivalent we often see in YA dystopia. (Though there’s nothing wrong with that!) Making Lei’s love interest another young woman, one who is experiencing many of the same abuses and struggles as Lei, cracks open the novel thematically. In a world where sex is about male pleasure and domination, what could be more defiant than
I appreciated the core of the story so much that I was able to overlook the world it was set in, which made very little sense to me. To be honest, I’m not sure why the fantasy elements are included at all, which is… not good in a fantasy. From what I understand, the “moon caste” creatures are rooted in the Malaysian stories that inspired the world, but they don’t really do anything for the book besides lend a little creepy atmosphere. This probably would have been stronger with a more realistic dystopian setting. (It would have been stronger as a standalone, too, but this is YA, and everything has to be a friggin trilogy.)
By far the weak point of the book is Lei, who I still couldn’t really describe even after reading the entire book. Her motivations and traits seem to change chapter-to-chapter based on the story’s needs, and her arc ended up muddled.
I’m concerned about some of the book’s ideas about survivorhood.
While Girls of Paper and Fire is largely a sensitive and compassionate portrayal of the trauma of sexual abuse, I worry about some of the messages. In particular, the positioning of Lei as The Special has some troubling ramifications.
The book treats it as a mark of Lei’s superior strength of character that instead of freezing up or aquescing as some other girls do when raped, her instinct is to fight back. While I understand what Ngan is going for, I strongly disagree with the assigning of superiority to any given response to being attacked. In seeking to elevate the (otherwise unremarkable) Lei, Ngan verges on disrespect and victim-blaming towards girls who just happen to have different natural instincts.
This issue was enough to bring it down from four stars for me. No response to assault is morally superior. There is courage in choosing your battles, in enduring, in resisting in quiet ways. It isn’t weak to not endanger your life by physically fighting back. There’s nothing wrong with a person for reacting in an illogical or unexpected way.
And a note about the dog…
As you can probably infer from the synopsis, this book deals with very mature subject matter, and I want to warn potential readers that it sometimes veers into being gratutious. Of course, most of it is necessary, but some of it is jarring and unexpected in the bad way. Most strikingly, (I’m including hidden content warnings at the bottom of this post, but I’m not marking this as a spoiler because it occurs in the first couple of chapters) Lei’s beloved dog is violently killed at the beginning of the book. The moment is clearly meant to be her batism-in-fire turning-point from her innocent world of childhood, but several other beats serve that purpose. The moment doesn’t accomplish anything for plot or character, and killing of a dog is a huge turn-off for many readers (including myself). I know this might seem silly in a book where human beings are abused and killed, but I can’t help it. If you kill a dog, I want you to have a damn good reason.
Content warnings for Girls of Paper and Fire include:
Violence (Moderate/severe physical violence (much on-page and experienced by POV character), physical abuse, killing of a pet (on-page), references to off-page and past murder, mutilation, slavery/forced labor.
Sexual violence: You can tell from the synopsis that the story involves off-page rape and sexual violence, often against minors, baked into the story. In addition, we have multiple on-page scenes of sexual violence against the POV character and a fade-to-black scene of rape of the POV character (who is 17 at the time).
Sexual content: On-page PG-13 discussions of sex, POV character attraction and sexual fantasy, on-page physical intimacy, fade-to-black sex (f/f).
Language and hate: On-page