Once, all the peoples of Ikhara were Paper. Then the heavenly rulers rained colors down upon the earth, blessing some with powerful gifts while others hid in fear and remained human. Now those un-blessed humans make up the Paper caste, subjugated by the demon Moon caste and the part-demon Steel caste. (In Ikhara, demon means animal-featured, e.g. humanoid leopards, foxes, owls, etc. Demons also have supernatural abilities.)
This creation myth is the first thing the reader learns about the world of Girls of Paper and Fire, and right away we’re left questioning whether or not it’s true–and who benefits from telling it.
Our heroine, Lei, is a Paper caste girl whose mother was stolen and possibly killed by the forces of the demon bull king. But Girls of Paper and Fire is never as simple as human vs. demon: the next character we meet is an employee of Lei’s father’s herb shop, Tien, a Steel caste woman who seems kind, thoughtful, and loving toward Lei and her father despite their caste differences.
What is going on here? Who’s good? Who’s bad? Who can we trust? Who can we believe? These questions inform every part of Girls of Paper and Fire, putting me in mind of Katniss Everdeen: another heroine from an oppressed and downtrodden district who suddenly finds herself at the center of unimaginable wealth, power, treachery, and revolution. Ikhara even has a Reaping of sorts: every year, eight Paper girls are chosen to become courtesans of the king, removed from their families forever and thrust into deadly court intrigue. Lei bypasses this process–because of her strange golden eyes, she’s kidnapped by a Moon caste general and presented as a gift to the king instead–so we only hear about the selection in passing. (Which is probably for the better.)
The beginning of Girls of Paper and Fire is a little overwhelming and clumsy: there’s a lot of table-setting and world-building to get through before Lei enters the palace, officially joins the Paper girls, and sets off the events of the story in earnest. But it doesn’t take too long to find its feet, and once it does, it never slows down again.
Girls of Paper and Fire gets shockingly dark at times: as an unwilling courtesan, Lei is dehumanized, tortured, and subject to the constant threat of sexual and physical violence. (This is definitely a YA novel geared toward older teens.) But Lei is also able to find joy and friendship in the most unexpected places. She learns about her own limits and about her own power. And when I realized that Lei was falling in love with another girl at the palace, I literally shrieked aloud with happiness. This novel packs a massive emotional punch, and it was exactly the escape I needed over the past few weeks.
The reason the parallels to The Hunger Games are striking to me isn’t because I think Girls of Paper and Fire is derivative–in fact, I think it’s one of the more imaginative, daring, and original YA novels I’ve ever read. (Ikhara, inspired by the author’s experiences of growing up in multicultural Malaysia, is a truly spectacular fantasy setting that I’m dying to dig into further.) It’s that I didn’t realize how much I’d missed that kind of fast-paced, politically righteous YA until Girls of Paper and Fire served me its near-flawless version of it. The wave of grim YA dystopias that followed the success of The Hunger Games often missed the mark of what made Katniss and her world so appealing: its perfect balance of desperation and hope, trauma and healing. With Girls of Paper and Fire, Natasha Ngan hit the bullseye, almost exactly ten years after The Hunger Games was first released.
My only real complaint about Girls of Paper and Fire is the way it occasionally bounces between extreme poles of Portentous and Anticlimactic. There’s an intense prologue about Lei’s birth pendant that never quite pays off (although I’m open to it being setup for the sequel), and then a final reveal at the very very end that is…hmm. No spoilers, but it made me feel a little tricked, and not in a good way.
But it wasn’t enough to spoil my enjoyment of the book, and I suspect that Girls of Paper and Fire‘s teenaged target audience will care even less. I used to devour fantasy novels like this by the tote bag-load, anything and everything my local library had on the shelf. The fact that this book has a queer girl at its center makes it even more special and exciting–Ash and Huntress by Malinda Lo were (are!) incredibly precious to me, and I’m happy that teens right now have even more options to choose from.
Girls of Paper and Fire is a thrilling YA fight-the-power story, a fiery repudiation of rape culture and misogyny, and a swoony F/F romance all in one. I ate it up with a spoon. I’ll definitely be checking out the sequel, Girls of Storm and Shadow. ★★★★☆
Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan
Originally published in November 2018 by JIMMY Patterson Books (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers).
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