Girls of Paper and Fire: Review
Ahhh, it does feel great to spend my nights snuggled up in bed with a good book! I’m so glad that I’ve found my groove and the best reading time for me during these hectic months. My most recent read was Girls of Paper and Fire, which I received from a monthly Fairyloot box. This was a book that I was insanely excited for because of its Malaysian influences. I had read many reviews that either praised the book for its representation of sexual violence or condemned it, and I saw this title making its rounds around the internet. What did I think? Read on to find out.
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: violence and sexual abuse.
Girls of Paper and Fire blends together Asian mythology and Malaysian culture effortlessly with a young adult plot that is so familiar to so many, and in doing so, makes this plot seem fresh and brand new. I took great joy in reading about some of traditions in this world, like a garden pool shaped into the “number eight” for good luck, or various characters that represented certain things because I implicitly understood the symbolism as a Chinese-American. For example, I understood that the honorific that is used to refer to the Paper Girls, “zhi” means paper, and so this honorific is both respectful and derogatory at the same time in this context. It would be 100% accurate to say that part of my affection for this book comes from a personal attachment and my desire to see more books representing my culture and infusing it with fantasy.
The writing and plot is fairly evenly paced. Within the first few pages of the book, I knew exactly what the major conflict was going to be. The book unfurled within my hands to expose layer upon layer within the trope-y plot of “girl gets selected to meet king.” There were powerful themes to be found, including racism and sexual violence, and Ngan did not shy away from presenting these themes in as a raw a manner as she possibly could in a YA book. Of course, this means that there are trigger warnings associated with this book, and I will bring that up here as well. Yes, there is rape. No, those scenes aren’t explicit, but the implication is evident. And these scenes are absolutely necessary to convey just how the Paper caste is mistreated and the sick, twisted legacy of the Paper Girls.
Girls of Paper and Fire introduces a harem of girls to the reader, each with a distinct appearance and personality (and each almost archetypical of a “harem girl” from a video game or anime). Lei is the wildcard, the girl with unnaturally golden eyes, who is unmistakably Paper but with eyes the color of the full moon. My annoyance with this feature, which was mentioned several times as a point of conflict, is that it doesn’t play a factor in the book after the first third or so. Yet, the only reason why she was brought in to be a Paper Girl was because of these mysterious eyes. She is, to put it plainly, a naive country girl. Her village has seen devastation and her own family was torn apart because of violence, but Lei knows nothing beyond the outskirts of her village. Yet, despite being surrounded by grandeur and luxury within the royal court, Lei maintains her stubbornness and will of fire. She is a compelling protagonist to follow.
I really enjoyed reading Girls of Paper and Fire! It was a fast read that was infused with rich world-building, and certainly a powerful story to tell.