A British Chinese Malaysian author Natasha Ngan’s third book and her first venture into fantasy was one of my recent finds in flash ebook deals. I have been on a YA SFF streak during summer. So, I was certainly in the mood for more action-packed books. To my surprise, Girls of Paper and Fire was a slow burn. However, I came to appreciate the overall effect the pacing had on the subject matters, which I will discuss later in this review.
In the first installment of her series, Ngan draws on various cultures across Asia to build a fantastical empire called Ikhara. Although I do appreciate the thought behind her world building, I could not help but wish that the cultural mixing had been done more carefully as many of the vocabulary for food, clothing and architecture in Ikhara are taken straight out of real world East / Southeast Asian contexts. For instance, the book mentions that the sari-making business is located in southern Kitori. This piece of information and other similar ones created a dissonance in my mind by meshing Indian / Japanese / Chinese / Malaysian / Arabic influences without providing a clear pattern and / or explanation for how the cultural hybridization took place.
While there is still something more to be desired for in the world building, I found the characters in the Girls of Paper and Fire and the development of their relationships intriguing and compelling. Once the Bull King of Han (formerly from Jana) conquers all of Ikhara through the Night War, pre-existing prejudices between clans and castes escalate. There are three castes in Ikhara: the Paper castes are humans without any animal-demon features and abilities; the Steel castes are humans with partial animal-demon features and abilities; the Moon castes have full animal-demon features though they appear humanoid in form. This premise reminded me of Majorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s graphic novel series, Monstress, which features the conflict between humans, Arcanics and the Ancients. This similarity in terms of premises and aesthetics helped me visualize the characters in Girls of Paper and Fire.
As it might be guessed from the title, the protagonist of the book is Lei, who is of Paper caste. Seven years after her mother has been taken during a raid by imperial soldiers, Lei tries to deal with grief while running a small herb shop with her father and a surrogate mother figure, Tien, who works for the family despite being of a higher (Steel) caste. However, her life is shattered further when the rumors of a Paper girl with demon-like eyes that are pure gold reaches one of the power hungry general. Lei is to become one of the Paper Girls, eight concubines presented as tributes every year to the Demon King.
So, begins the journey of Lei being transported to the main kingdom of Han and being trained to become one of the Paper Girls in the Hidden Palace, which is why I described the book as a slow burn. What I appreciated the most was that Ngan does not minimize the fact that Lei is essentially forced to become a sex slave for the King. Throughout the journey to the palace and even after Lei begins to be trained as a concubine, the dread of one day being forced to spend the night with the King looms large. While the teachers at the Paper House attribute the fear to inexperience, Lei is acutely aware of how she must engage in a non-consensual sex act under the conditions of enslavement. The book accordingly includes a trigger warning for scenes depicting sexual assaults. I will say however that it is one of those cases in which the scenes are necessary to the plot development and not just there to provide graphic violence.
Even under such circumstances, Lei does find ways to defy the King and take back joys in her life. She falls in love with Wren, who is also a Paper Girl. While tenuous at times, she also finds friendship in Aoki and other women of the court. I appreciated the careful attention Ngan paid to female / female relationships romantic or otherwise. I found it very realistic that while all the girls are aware of their situation, they choose to deal with it in different ways so that their views are aligned in regards to one issue and not so much in another. And I loved that it is difficult to pass judgment on how each of the girls ultimately decide to exercise what little agency that they are afforded. The sequel to this book, Girls of Storm and Shadow, is set to come out this November. Based on where the Girls of Paper and Fire left the readers, I am guessing that the sequel will deal more with what is happening in Ikhara beyond the palace walls though I will not provide further spoilers!