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.
Why did I want to read? It’s a diverse young adult fantasy, it has a beautiful cover, and it’s super, super gay.
Girls of Paper and Fire is my 100th Book of the Year, and I’m so glad I had that milestone with something I whole-heartedly enjoyed. Lushly written, and compulsively fast paced, I cleared Girls of Paper and Fire on the afternoon it arrived in the post.
Our protagonist, Lei, is a member of the oppressed Paper Caste, a human with remarkable golden eyes in a world where demons or demon-featured people hold the most power. These eyes lead to her being selected as a Paper Girl against her will, taken to the palace to serve as a concubine to the Demon King alongside 8 other Paper Caste girls, one of whom she begins to become close to.
This book does depict sexual assault and rape. As these are discussed extensively in other reviews and by the author in the Author’s Note, they are not the focus of my review (which is super. long.) But please be aware of these triggers going in!
Diversity and WLW rep in YA
I think it’s not inaccurate that there is plenty of diverse representation to be found in YA – it’s partly why I often go back to it as a genre. But I think it’s also a fair statement that it’s often hard to find unless you actively search for it, or follow certain bloggers who act as amazing advocates and activists and do all that hard work for you (often with no thanks, so this is a shout out to them right now!!)
I think, in particular, YA does suffer from a compulsory heterosexuality problem (while acknowledging the intersections this often overlaps with, and the fact that a book can feature a straight relationship and still be diverse). I myself did not begin to ID as anything other than straight until my 20s, and it’s a depressing truth that the fiction and media I consumed definitely contributed to the protracted nature of this process. As a compulsive reader, fiction was the main way I learnt about the world, and I never felt the need to question my sexuality, because love in YA was always typified in a very specific way I had yet to experience: passionate, all-consuming, and almost without fail, straight. I’m hoping that Girls of Paper and Fire might be a step to change that.
For one thing, this is one of the few books with a wlw main pairing that I knew about without actively having to search for it – partly because of the hype it gained when the beautiful, heart stopping cover was revealed. There’s also the fact that I received this in a book subscription box, and it’s genuinely the first gay book I have personally received this way (and it wasn’t even a LGBTQ special edition box! WOOP!)
But I also knew this book would be actively engaging in issues of community and of representation in fiction from the Ngan’s note at the beginning of the novel, which serves to discuss the triggers of sexual assault in the book, the reasons behind them, and also why the rep in this book matter’s so much to her as an author. I love it when author’s show active engagement with the discussions the book blogging community are constantly having.
“The conception…comes from a personal, deep yearning for more diverse novels, particularly in YA…I would love to see more books reflecting the rich variety of our individual realities.”
I think this mission statement is reflected in this wonderful book. While I cannot assess to the rep of Malaysia-inspired Ikhara (there are bloggers who can), there was a definite sense that compulsory heterosexuality was never taken for granted within the pages. There is never a “questioning” or “coming out moment” for Lei – although we never learn about her life before she is taken to the Court, and don’t learn of previous romantic attachments, she clearly knows before the book’s start that she likes girls. While Lei has a number of reasons to resent her situation that are completely unrelated to sexuality and entirely based on the lack of consent, her frustration with the assumptions that underlie why her place in court would be “honour” was clearly aligned with the fact that she did not fit patriarchy’s assumption of straightness as default.
As for her and Wren’s relationship, I enjoyed it immensely. I liked that Wren was actually the more competent one: it’s so rare for side characters in YA to actually be allowed to be more powerful than the protagonist. I think the book balanced this well – as other reviewers have noticed, there were times when I wondered why we were following Lei rather than Wren, but there was never a moment when I actually wanted to switch. Lei’s status as an outsider to court and refusal to play along even for the sake of survival meant that it did feel like she drove the narrative. In this way, we actually get to enjoy two female characters who compliment each other’s strengths and weaknesses. On the other hand, their romance did seem to me to escalate very quickly, but this a complaint I hold against a lot of YA relationships, and thus can’t really hold against this novel. There was definite chemistry there, and I’m excited to see how the pairing grows and develops over future books.
Beyond the romance, this book had such a strong caste of nuanced, interesting female characters that I genuinely fell in love. From Zelle, the knowledgable witty courtesan, to Blue, the rival Paper Girl who holds a fraught relationship to family duty, to Aoki, who is young and impressionable to the point where she is taken in by the Paper Girl lifestyle, while remaining kind and loyal, there were so many well-rounded characters in this book. Everyone’s motives were understandable, and you could see why even the antagonists acted the way they did. The most two-dimensional character was actually the King himself, and I kind of loved that – your villain, who spits out weak justifications for his awful actions, being dwarfed by a cast of brilliant, multifaceted women. Characterisation definitely felt like ones of the author’s true strengths.
Worldbuilding and magic
Girls of Paper and Fire is a queer love story, but it is also an amazingly lush and detailed high fantasy. Set in a world where people are ranked in castes – Moon, Steel, Paper – dependent on how much demon blood they are shown to have, Lei’s struggle to escape the Demon King’s control takes place against the backdrop of a larger growing tension, as rebels begin to fight back against the King’s oppressively strict regime. The book definitely managed to balance all its elements very well, both the personal of Lei and the larger political conflict she begins to realise she is part of, which I think will come to the foreground in future books.
Magic in Girls of Paper and Fire is definitely there, but we never really get a sense of what it can do. I loved the hints we did get, about Shamans, and the Xia, and the larger conspiracies at work within the world of the palace, and the more I think about it, the more questions I have. This is partly because Lei herself is quite an underpowered protagonist – for all her Mary-Sue eyes have plot relevance, she herself is a very human and vulnerable character, who simply has to survive and retain the agency she has by whatever means available to her. In this way, she represents the Paper Caste she is punished for being a part of: throughout the book we see the numerous ways humans within Ikhara have been forced to compromise to avoid death and decimation.
I’m hopeful for magic to have more prominence in future instalments, because I love magic, but the fact that the social and political systems of this world, and the conspiracies that are at work, were vividly detailed enough to hold my attention throughout means that I still felt like this book transported me to another world.
Girls of Paper and Fire was an incredibly strong debut, that has one of the largest casts of strong, nuanced women that I’ve read. I’m excited for how the things that I enjoyed develop even further as the series progresses.
Overall Rating: 4.5/5