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.
TW: sexual assault, rape, violence, death.
I flew through this book so fast, considering I was sick when I read it, and when I couldn’t pick it up, the story and the characters were always on my mind. I don’t often stay up late because I’m always exhausted, but this book kept me up long into the night.
I have to say that Girls of Paper and Fire is definitely harrowing at times, to the point where I was cringing for pages, and wanted to just reach inside the story take the characters out of the horrible situations they found themselves in. That being said, I think Natasha Ngan did a very good job of making these difficult scenes effective and painful, without ever dipping into romanticisation or the violence becoming gratuitous. I found everything to be done with a great deal of respect, while also delivering that gut punch when it needed to.
The pacing was also pretty spot on for me, as everything moved along with enough pace to keep me engaged, but it also slowed down in the moments I wanted to savour, and gave room to really get to grasps with this world and the characters in it.
And wow, these are some characters. Lei has definitely shot to the top of my favourite protagonists and has totally messed up my end of the year lists – thanks, Lei! – but I couldn’t be happier about it. I loved her heart, her spirited nature, and her occasional sass in the face of her mistreatment. That last one is a difficult thing to get right for me, as often the sass or snark that people love, I tend to find unrealistic or forced. In this case, by balancing the humour with Lei’s deeper thoughts and feelings and her rational thought, it was made much more realistic. It’s one of her coping mechanisms, rather than an entire personality, which is what I sometimes find.
I have to say though, Lei isn’t the only character to mess up my end of the year list, because Wren came in and bulldozed that! It amazed me how much I came to care for Wren as an individual, even though she doesn’t have a POV. Despite us never being inside her head, her motivations and her personality shone through so well and I have such a clear image of her in my head. I adore how her fierceness is mirrored with her gentle moments, and how her backstory has informed and sculpted the person she is. As that backstory and her role in the story unfurled, I was grinning so hard that my family thought I possessed. I just loved her character that much.
The other paper girls, even though we only get little glimpses of some of them, I also enjoyed reading about. The camaraderie some of them shared really provided some much needed levity, but was also so important to the story and to Lei. There were so many nuances in each of their perspectives on the situation, even though it would have been easy for their outlook to be very black and white and uniform. It really just added more layers of complexity and, in some cases, broke my heart even more.
As for the relationship, the two participants – both girls – had so much chemistry that I was actually blushing when they interacted. I don’t want to spoil who the love interest is, but I was completely sold on their relationship. It was tender, honest, raw, and intense – everything I want from a romance.
I’m going to end characters and relationships there otherwise this review will go on forever, so onto the world-building. Ikhara is inspired by the author’s childhood in Malaysia, and I loved seeing a non-Western fantasy setting. There wasn’t too much room for full development of the world as most of our time is spent in the palace, but there were little crumbs to tease us for the next book, especially when it comes to political intrigue, alliances, and history. I’m so excited to see this world expand even further.
If I could sum up the book in one word, I’d go with ’empowering’. It’s a pretty vague word, but Lei honestly made me want to flip a table, flip it back, jump up onto it, and start a revolution. The fact that the girl at the head of this empowering story is queer and Asian, is just incredible.
I can’t wait to inhale every book Natasha Ngan writes in the future, and will be waiting to slam that pre-order button on the sequel as soon as I can.
Is It For You?
If you like:
- An F/F relationship with more chemistry than you know what to do with.
- A fantasy setting inspired by Malaysia.
- A nuanced, sensitive exploration of sexual assault and a critique on the trauma many of us have suffered in our lives.
- Revolution vibes.
- High emotional charges.
- Characters you will genuinely fall straight in love with.
- Pacing good enough that you don’t even realise you’re flying through the book.
- Some of the most intense closing scenes I’ve come across.
Then Girls of Paper and Fire is the book for you!
But if you:
- Are sensitive to the topics of sexual assault, rape, and violence.
- Possible prefer more action-driven plot than character-driven (though I feel it only slightly leans more toward character-driven).
- Are looking for a light, fluffy read.
Then tread carefully.
Have you read Girls of Paper and Fire? Please, please, please let me know in a comment and we can cry together!