Disclaimer: I received this book in a subscription box I purchased. Nobody asked me to review it, and all opinions are my own.
Girls of Paper and Fire – Natasha Ngan
Published: 6th November 2018 by Hodder & Stoughton
Genre: YA Fantasy
Recommended Age: 16+ (sexual assault, violence, death)
Page Count: 336
Purchase: Book Depository
Synopsis (taken from Amazon):
Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honour they could hope for…and the most demeaning. This year, there’s a ninth. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.
Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most persecuted class of people in Ikhara. Ten years ago, her mother was snatched by the royal guards, and her fate remains unknown. Now, the guards are back and this time it’s Lei they’re after – the girl with the golden eyes, whose rumoured beauty has piqued the king’s interest.
Over weeks of training in the opulent but oppressive palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit a king’s consort. There, Lei 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.
I’m going to start this review off with a trigger warning. There are mentions of sexual and physical abuse, violence and murder. Please proceed with caution.
Girls of Paper and Fire was a book that I hadn’t heard of until October 2018 when I received my monthly Fairyloot box. I make it a habit to not check the comments in Fairyloot posts in case I see someone’s guess about what the book may be, and this was a pleasant surprise. The edition I received was signed and had stunning pink sprayed edges!
I was hesitant to start the book at first – seeing numbers for helplines at the start of a YA book is such a rare occurrence that it made me think twice. Would it trigger me? As a sexual abuse survivor, I questioned it over and over again, until I finally had the courage to read the first few chapters during the Fairyloot readalong, and I am very happy to say that it did not disappoint.
The story follows Lei, a paper caste girl with beautifully unusual eyes, who gets taken from her home and forced to become one of the demon King’s concubines. This is compelling to me, as we don’t see this concept very often in a YA book. Unfortunately, a lot of things are censored in YA fiction, so I’m very glad this wasn’t.
The role as one of the Demon King’s concubines is simple – show up to events to impress him, and sleep with him whenever he calls for you. It’s a show of misogyny, lack of regard and abuse of power. These girls are trained for years, and don’t have much of a choice – for example, in Leo’s case, if she doesn’t comply her family will die.
Lei is extremely open about how much she despises what she has to do, and is very glad whenever her name isn’t called, unlike her friend Aoki, who falls in love with him. This show of defiance against the King and her role lands her in trouble – a week of starvation locked inside a tiny room alongside physical assault.
Very early on in the book we witness one of the King’s soldiers attempt to rape Lei, but it is prevented by another soldier, claiming that she’ll be no good to the king if she is not ‘pure’. In one way, I am thankful that she wasn’t raped, but it is clouded with negative thoughts when I quickly realise that the rape would’ve been allowed if she wasn’t going to be the King’s plaything for the next year. The sexism in this book is shocking, but even more shocking is the fact that it was once a very real way of life.
Lei eventually has to sleep with the king, but fights against it and runs away, ending up getting beaten by the King himself, then by one of her teachers, and then starved in a tiny room for one week. This is more abuse on poor Lei; being beaten because she refused to have sex with the King.
Lei forms a friendship with another concubine called Wren throughout the book, and it slowly blossoms into much more than that. They soothe each other, sneaking cuddles in at night, gentle touches when nobody is looking – it’s exactly what is right for the two of them, and what adds to their drive to end the King for good.
Essentially, Wren has already formed a plan to assassinate the King, and has a lot of people of all castes on her side. She begins to teach Lei how to fight, and the plan is put in motion. However, Wren’s mother dies and she is forced to leave court, leaving it up to Lei to assassinate the King.
I’m not going to give away the ending, because that is a shock unto itself – I don’t think I could write a vague description that gives it enough justice!
“Because if this is my fate, I’m going to walk boldly into it on my own two feet”
Overall, this book was fantastically written, and the topic of sexual abuse is handled in a mature yet easy to understand manner. I love how we are able to learn about how Lei feels after the abuse she receives, as well as Wren and Aoki, and even Blue. The Paper Girls are all suffering in some way – whether it’s because they’ve been manipulated and almost brainwashed into believing the King is a good person (like Aoki), forced to become a Paper Girl to keep up appearances in an attempt to make her father happy (like Blue), or just because they just don’t want to be there and can’t escape. I feel as though insight into all of the Paper Girls’ backstories and emotions are incredibly important to portray in a story that touches on such sensitive topics, and I feel like Natasha has done this perfectly.
I’m so attached to all of these characters and can’t wait to follow their journey over the next book, and I honestly don’t think I have anything negative to say, which is rare for me!
The ending was absolutely phenomenal and so well written – it was one of the first books I’ve read in ages that genuinely left me wanting to beg for more. The murder in the final chapters was so gruesome and vivid in description that I was cringing and had to push the cringe away to get through it, which is another thing that is rare to find in a YA book. (I love a gruesome murder done well in a novel!)
I would like to say that if you are someone that does get very triggered by sexual abuse and rape then please don’t read this unless you are 100% comfortable! Mental health comes first before reading a book, no matter how good people say it is!
I absolutely adored this book and cannot wait for the next two books in the series. It was beautiful, heart breaking in places and the ending was a cliffhanger I can’t stop thinking about! Ahhhhh!
Enchanted Candle Co will be bringing out a GIRLS themed candle very soon, so keep your eyes peeled for that too!