Book Review: Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

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 demeaning. This year, there’s a ninth. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.

In this richly developed fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most persecuted class of people in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards for an unknown fate still haunts her. Now, the guards are back and this time it’s Lei they’re after – the girl with the golden eyes whose rumored beauty has piqued the king’s interest.

Over weeks of training in the opulent but oppresive palace, Lei and eight other girls learns the skills and charm that befit a king’s consort. There, she 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.

First of all, this book comes with a trigger warning for sexual abuse and violence.

Please, don’t let that deter you! Girls of Paper and Fire is definitely the revelation of the year, with an intricate plot that weaves themes of self-love and identity with a beautiful coming of age story built in a well-crafted and very interesting fantasy world.

Girls of Paper and Fire introduces us to Lei, the member of an oppresed caste who is chosen to become a Paper Girl, or the equivalent of a sex slave to the king. Along with her, seven other girls get chosen, a ritual that happens every year and that once upon a time saw Lei’s mother taken away from her. Lei meets Wren, another Paper Girl, which in turn twists the story into a romantic adventure in the search for justice.

The setting of the world is beautiful, weaving elements from Asian mythology with original fantasy imagery. Ngan’s world is evocative, and it becomes an enchanting spell of scents and sights in which to root the story of these young girls.

Thematically, this book is dense, but only in the best of ways. It carves out a society in which women are objectified, and offers a very clear view on rape as a tool for power. The topic is difficult, but it is treated with genuine care and without being unnecessarily graphic. Thus, the book tells a powerful tale of male sexual violence used as a means of exerting domination, rather than as depravation or mere lust.

The girls in this book meet during a traumatic period in their lives, and find strenght in each other and in the reclaiming of their own selves, their minds and their bodies. The focus on recovering from trauma is beautiful, and it makes for character archs that build into three-dimensional stories of great complexity, and great hope.

I recommed Girls of Paper and Fire for fans of fantasy, lesbian romance, and well-crafted young adult novels with great characters.

Buy Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan Lo here.

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You can find this book in my list Top 10 Best Fantasy and Romance Novels