A copy was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exhange for an honest review
Girls of Paper and Fire quickly became one of my most anticipated reads after how much hype it’s been getting lately. After I heard it was an ownvoices Asian inspired fantasy book with a f/f relationship, I was instantly hooked. There were a lot of things to like about this, but unfortunately it didn’t quite meet my expectations.
Girls of Paper and Fire is set in Ikhara, a world with three castes: Moon Castes- the highest caste who are entirely demon; Paper Castes- the lowest of the castes and entirely human; and Steel Castes- the middle cast who are a human-demon hybrid. Each year, The Demon King (a moon caste) selects eight Paper Girls to become his sex slaves. Lei, our protagonist, is ripped from her home and transported to the palace to become the ninth Paper Girl this year. Thrust into a life she never wanted, Lei fights against her fate and falls forbiddenly in love with one of her fellow Paper Girls. What follows is a story about love, justice and revenge.
At its core, I believe Girls of Paper and Fire to be about rape and rape culture. Lei is under constant fear of the threat of sexual violence, forced into a position of one of the king’s concubines she never wanted to be in. This fear and her fight against the king is the driving factor of the story. Ngan intricately examines rape culture in a misogynistic society that views women as objects and shows how rape is used to gain power. I really liked that Ngan made it clear that rape is about power and not about sex, as so many believe it is. It’s an important distinction and sorely appreciated. Alongside this, Ngan crafts a beautiful story of reclamation– she explores the different ways and times in which people recover from sexual violence and reclaim their bodily autonomy. I thought this was really beautifully done, and I’m sure some people with certainly resonate with this side of the story.
Girls of Paper and Fire is also about love. Lei and Wren’s relationship was another driving factor of the story and I loved them so much. I think their relationship could have used a little more development, however I think they were a perfect fit for each other. Their personalities fit so well together and they both supported and loved each other unconditionally and in the ways the other person needed it. Where Lei was desparate for escape and just coming into her strength, Wren was there to support and uplift her the whole way.
For the most part, I liked Lei as a protagonist. It was refreshing to see a YA main character who struggles to learn the techniques and skills she needs to survive and to see that it’s wholly okay to be afraid in situations that would 100% terrify anyone. My only complaint is that I wish she had a more discernible goal for more of the book— a large part of this book was just about Lei trying to survive, not exactly actively fighting against the system. We knew very early on that Wren had plans we were not clued in on, so it felt that a lot of the book was spent with the reader waiting around for Wren to reveal her plans.
For that reason, I’d also say this book had a few slight pacing issues. The first third dragged on quite a bit and took me forever to read. However, once we hit the last third, it seemed that everything moved too quickly. Where weeks were dragged out for 10% at a time, the last four weeks at the end of the novel were crammed into only a few chapters. I have a feeling that Ngan will improve on this in future books in the series, and now that the ball is rolling, the sequels will not have the same problem.
My only other complaint is I was hoping for a bit more world-building. Ngan explores the politics of the world well, and I loved that we learned a lot of the history of Ikhara throughout– albeit it was a little info-dumpey at times. But, I wanted to know more about the magic of the world. We understand that there is a caste system of demon, humans and demon-human hybrids, but I wanted to know the how. Tell me how the demons came into existence and how their genetics differ from humans. I wanted a more in-depth look into the differences between demons and humans.
In terms of the writing, Ngan has a lot of potential. I certainly highlighted a lot of the beautiful sentences she crafted and I think that she will just get better and better with experience. Ngan’s descriptions are lush and beautiful, and she’s good at making you feel. I couldn’t help but empathise with Lei as soon as we met her (tho pls don’t kill any more dogs in this series, my poor heart can’t take it).
Overall, I thought this was a pretty good debut. Ngan crafted a story with interesting characters, an amazing f/f romance, great explorations of rape and rape culture and gorgeous writing. With some work on pacing and a stronger plot, I believe Ngan will easily be a force to be reckoned with.