I have deviated a little from my original challenge list with this book, but it arrived just before I left for my holiday and was too good to pass up. It also counts towards my retellings challenge which is great.
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.
I was so excited to read this book, it kind of came as a bit of a surprise because I had pre-ordered the paperback last year and had completely forgotten that I had, so when it landed on my doorstep I was thrilled.
I think it’s fair to say that this is not a fast-paced book, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again that I find that with any kind of fantasy book that it needs time to introduce you to the world you are entering and the pace usually suffers a little for it. Since I am always ready for that I really enjoyed getting to immerse myself, especially because in this case the author has taken the time to build such an immense world that spans many places and involves a lot of different cultures.
The caste system was really interesting, I liked the mythology behind it and the magic that is imbued into the story because of it. I was glad to see that even though there is a clear hierarchy that there are still some characters, like Tien, who don’t care for its confines, and that even though the paper girls are still thought of as the lowest class there is a sort of reversal when they are at the hidden palace, it makes for some interesting tensions in the book.
I do feel that I would have liked to know more about the different castes, especially the steel and the moon castes, if there was more than just the physical aspects that separate them, but I get that getting all that kind of information probably wouldn’t have fit with the story.
The thing I most admire about this book is the representation of female relationships, words cannot express how pleased I was that there were dimensions to all of the paper girls. We didn’t just see them being the one way, they were all continually adjusting to the situations that they found themselves in and how they related to one another, we got to see why they were behaving in certain ways and understand their motivations.
The relationship between Lei and Aoki was depicted so brilliantly because it showed that you can be friends and still be frustrated with each other and that you can have totally different ideals but still love and forgive each other. It just worked so well and I need more of it please and thank you.
Lei wasn’t the most impressive character ever, to be honest, I do feel like there could have been more there, apart from her eyes I don’t know that I was convinced there was enough of something special about her to warrant the kind of attention that she gets in the first half of the book. As the book progresses you do see her character challenged and that gives her cause to develop and does make her that bit more interesting but still there were a few moments that I was questioning why she was the one being chosen, why she was being portrayed as the enigma.
Wren was in comparison exceptionally alluring, definitely the kind of character that I instantly wanted to know more about. She kept me guessing and when I did eventually find out more about her I couldn’t help but love her bravery and strength but also her vulnerability.
I loved the relationship between Wren and Lei, the way it teases out slowly and that Lei has to grapple with her feelings on top of being thrust into a situation that makes having those feelings dangerous. The stolen moments between these two were beautiful and the tension was exquisite, especially as others become aware of what is happening and when they still have to do their duties knowing how that must feel for the other person. It just gave the book that extra layer of emotionality, I was totally distraught for them and trying my best not to cry, I will admit I was unsuccessful.
Girls of Paper and Fire does have quite a dark storyline and deals with some very intense topics there are moments of extreme violence and sexual assault. I think these were handled very well and were in no way gratuitous, I also appreciated that the author took the time to write a note expressing her feelings on the matter. I also agree that difficult subjects can be safely explored through books especially if handled with as much poise and empathy as Ngan has in this book.
I would very much recommend this wonderful book and I am looking forward to finding out what happens next.