Girls of Paper and Fire is an Asian-inspired fantasy about a world where your social standing is determined by how much demon blood you have. At the top is the Moon caste — fully demon beings like the king. At the bottom is the Paper caste — fully human beings like the novel’s heroine Lei. Every year, a handful of girls from the Paper caste are selected to serve the king as his concubines. Except this year, Lei and another Paper girl fall in love, and Lei gets drawn into her lover’s plot to rise up against the caste system and overthrow the king.
I absolutely loved this novel. Mostly, I admit, because of all the Asian influences. The East Asian influences are immediately obvious — characters wear traditional Chinese clothing like cheongsams and ruquns, ‘Lei’ is an East Asian name (Chinese, according to Google, but I also know a Japanese woman named Lei), and the descriptions of the demon king’s Imperial court reminds me of Chinese history. But some of the character names also sound South Asian, and some of the food seems to have Southeast Asian and Malay influences. So I love all the little touches that feel like this fantasy world borrows details from various parts of Asia.
The world building is fantastic, and the descriptions wonderfully vivid. The way the palace’s designers creates dresses for the Paper girls that reflect their personalities reminds me of how Cinna in The Hunger Games designs Katniss’s outfits. And just as Cinna’s scenes were among my favourites in that trilogy, the descriptions of the outfits here are absolutely breathtaking. Take for example this cheongsam Lei wears early in the book:
I pull aside the folds of silk. There’s the wink of metallic silver… Cut long and slender, sleeveless, with a high collar, silver threads woven through flicker like running water when they catch the light. The delicate silk fabric is almost sheer. A scattering of moonstones, opals, and diamonds wind along the hips and chest. …It fits perfectly, clinging to my frame like a second skin. Despite the jewels, the material is light, mere brushings of gossamer across my skin. The warmth of magic thrums in the fabric. Whatever enchantment has been placed on the dress also makes it glow. Every moment I make sends of scatters of silvery light, as pale as moonbeams. [p. 88-89]
How much do you want to see that dress?! Or more importantly, feel that fabric against your skin?
The food as well sounds absolutely delicious. Even the food in a prison scene — pandan-wrapped rice balls — is mouthwatering.
That being said, this book isn’t all as light-hearted and pleasurable as I may have made it sound. Ngan never lets us forget that these Paper girls are, ultimately, sexual objects for the king’s pleasure. I believe the book merits trigger warnings for rape, sexual assault, and gender-based violence, and Ngan doesn’t flinch from portraying the reality that Lei and the other girls have to face. So this book is intense, but in a good way. At its heart, it’s a story of female empowerment, women reclaiming agency and independence within a social system that tries to render them mere objects. It’s somewhat like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale but for a YA audience, in a fantasy setting with Asian characters.
As Lei says on the back cover of my ARC:
In my land, we’re known as Paper Girls… easily torn, existing only for others to use and discard.
But there’s something they’ve all forgotten about paper. It can light the world on fire…and make it burn.
And indeed, as the story progresses, we see Lei develop from being a frightened girl wanting only to survive to becoming a powerful young woman ready and able to make her world burn. I loved this story and can’t wait to see where Ngan takes this next.
Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.