Book Review: Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

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.

cover description: a girl with yellow eyes gazes out at the viewer, her face covered by long dark hair. sparks fly from her hair and from the title text.

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).

Buy it or add it to your shelf:

I bought my own copy of Girls of Paper and Fire and received no compensation of any kind in exchange for this review.

Friday Bookbag, 8.16.19


Friday Bookbag is a weekly feature where I share a list of books I’ve borrowed, bought, or received during the week. It’s my chance to buzz about my excitement for books I might not get the chance to review.

I’ve felt pretty out of it this month. I was sick for most of last week, but even if I hadn’t been, I suspect I would still feel groggy. August seems to do that to everyone. I’m sad that summer is winding down, but I’m already looking forward to cooler September reading weather. Are you? (If you’re in the Southern Hemisphere, I’m sure the prospect of spring sounds pretty nice, as well.)

This week I’ve got a fiery YA fantasy novel, a quirky short story collection, a novel about the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, and a novel about an ecologically anxious commune experiment gone wrong in my bookbag. I’m hoping they’ll snap me out of my summer slump. Let’s dive in!

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Girls of Paper and Fire Cover
cover description: A banner reading “James Patterson Presents” stretches across the top. It’s a colorful illustration of a girl with golden eyes whose rainbow hair is full of sparks.

the source: purchased

the premise: From Goodreads:

“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 demeaning. This year, there’s a ninth. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.

In this richly developed fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most persecuted class of people in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards for an unknown fate still haunts her. Now, the guards are back and this time it’s Lei they’re after — the girl with the golden eyes whose rumored beauty has piqued the king’s interest.

Over weeks of training in the opulent but oppressive palace, Lei and eight other girls learns the skills and charm that befit a king’s consort. There, she 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.”

why I’m excited: The “James Patterson presents” label is kind of a turn-off for me–I’m not really a fan of the guy’s business practices or work. However, this story looks incredible in every way. It reminds me of a more grown-up version of The Princess Academy by Shannon Hale with a dash of Silver Phoenix by Cindy Pon. I guess I’m impressed that Patterson seems to be using his considerable influence to lift up authors of color, especially for a book that I’ve heard has a queer romance, too. I can’t wait to read this. (Also, that cover is G-O-R-G-E-O-U-S.)

Death is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Death is Not an Option Cover
cover description: A bright red cover. A pale disembodied arm reaches out to stroke the head of a tiger.

source: the library

the premise: From Goodreads:

Death Is Not an Option is a bold, dazzling debut collection about girls and women in a world where sexuality and self-delusion collide. In these stories, a teacher obsesses over a student who comes to class with scratch marks on his face; a Catholic girl graduating high school finds a warped kind of redemption in her school’s contrived class rituals; and a woman looking to rent a house is sucked into a strangely inappropriate correspondence with one of the landlords. These are just a few of the powerful plotlines in Suzanne Rivecca’s gorgeously wrought collection. From a college student who adopts a false hippie persona to find love, to a young memoirist who bumps up against a sexually obsessed fan, the characters in these fiercely original tales grapple with what it means to be honest with themselves and the world.”

why I’m excited: The reign of the short story collection continues in my heart! This looks fun and weird and interesting. Authors can try things in short stories that simply don’t work in novels, and I’ve been enjoying witnessing that, even when the things being tried are a little left of center.

The City Always Wins Cover
cover description: A tiny figure at the center of the cover is throwing a tear gas canister. Red smoke from the canister makes a spiral, turning the person at the center into a target. The background is stark white.

The City Always Wins by Omar Robert Hamilton

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

source: the library

the premise: From Goodreads:

The City Always Wins is a novel from the front line of a revolution. Deeply enmeshed in the 2011 uprising in Tahrir Square, Mariam and Khalil move through Cairo’s surging streets and roiling political underground, their lives burning with purpose, their city alive in open revolt, the world watching, listening, as they chart a course into an unknown future. They are―they believe―fighting a new kind of revolution; they are players in a new epic in the making.

From the communal highs of night battles against the police to the solitary lows of postrevolutionary exile, Omar Robert Hamilton’s bold debut cuts to the psychological heart of one the key chapters in the twenty-first century. Arrestingly visual, intensely lyrical, uncompromisingly political, and brutal in its poetry, The City Always Wins is a novel not just about Egypt’s revolution, but about a global generation that tried to change the world.

why I’m excited: This book’s title made it jump off the shelf for me. It’s pessimistic but hopeful, too, which is about how I feel about the Arab Spring in general and the Egyptian revolution in particular. This is outside the wheelhouse of what I normally read, but it sounds terrific. I can’t wait to read it.

We Went to the Woods Cover
cover description: A colorful illustration of a forest with lots of trees and a crescent moon overhead.

We Went to the Woods by Caite Dolan-Leach

Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

source: the library

the premise: From Goodreads:

Certain that society is on the verge of economic and environmental collapse, five disillusioned twenty-somethings make a bold decision: They gather in upstate New York to transform an abandoned farm, once the site of a turn-of-the-century socialist commune, into an idyllic self-sustaining compound called the Homestead.

Louisa spearheads the project, as her wealthy family owns the plot of land. Beau is the second to commit; as mysterious and sexy as he is charismatic, he torments Louisa with his nightly disappearances and his other relationships. Chloe, a dreamy musician, is naturally able to attract anyone to her–which inevitably results in conflict. Jack, the most sensible and cerebral of the group, is the only one with any practical farm experience. Mack, the last to join, believes it’s her calling to write their story–but she is not the most objective narrator, and inevitably complicates their increasingly tangled narrative. Initially exhilarated by restoring the rustic dwellings, planting a garden, and learning the secrets of fermentation, the group is soon divided by slights, intense romantic and sexual relationships, jealousies, and suspicions. And as winter settles in, their experiment begins to feel not only misguided, but deeply isolating and dangerous.

why I’m excited: I love cult novels! This sounds like a prequel of sorts to History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund, which takes place in the ruins of a commune. This looks sinister and of the moment and great.

What’s in your bookbag this week? Do you have any exciting weekend reading plans? Let me know in the comments, and feel free to link to your own book reviews and blog posts!