Girls of Paper and Fire, by Natasha Ngan
Publish Date: November 6, 2018
Published by: Jimmy Patterson Books
Genre: YA Fantasy
My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (2.5 out of 5 stars)
**I received this as an egalley from the publisher through Edelweiss in return for an honest review.**
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.
TW: violence and sexual abuse.
I really wanted to like this book. Going in, I was so excited for an Asian-inspired fantasy story about two girls falling in love while prisoners to a tyrannical King. It sounded inspiring and beautiful, and while there were moments of both, particularly in certain passages and quotes, I was just so utterly bored throughout the whole story that I can’t help but being disappointed in this book. The plot dragged, with characters that were only slightly interesting, and the twists were so predictable that I was completely unenthused even when the action started happening. If it hadn’t been for the fact that I made it past the halfway point and was not in the mood to start something new while I was in tech for a show, I would have DNF’ed this a lot sooner. But with all the positive reviews I just kept hoping it would get better, but it just never did for me.
The writing style of this book is beautiful and great. While I was first reading it, I was invested and easily drawn into the world, but when I put it down, I never felt the dire need to pick it back up again. I thought the world-building was excellent and interesting, although it was sometimes hard to follow with all the different clan names and regions within the country of Ikhara. It didn’t help that the only map given was of the palace, which is also where the majority of the story took place, so I had little point of reference to figure out where everyone was from and the different clans and such. The different caste system was definitely interesting and made for quite a unique society system, and I liked that while there was magic in the world, it didn’t feel like the main focus. It was just part of the world and that was that.
Lei was a strong character and I really enjoyed her drive. And in the beginning I was very interested in her friendship with Aoki, another Paper Girl, and loved how close they became. But then, somehow, their friendship just sort of…disappeared. Suddenly Lei’s attraction towards Wren became the entire focus, she stopped spending time with Aoki, and then wondered why Aoki was suddenly falling for the Demon King who was being kind and talking to her like he cared about her opinion. It just angered me that this beautifully built friendship got shoved aside for the sake of the romance, and it definitely ruined things for me.
As for this said romance, I just did not feel the chemistry. The two of them, Wren and Lei, didn’t seem to spend a lot of time together before they were forced together to make Lei learn her place as a Paper Girl better, and even then I just never felt much between them. They didn’t seem to ever talk on the page or do anything together that made me feel like, yes they belong together. It was just mutual attraction as far as I could tell, with some dialogue later on retroactively giving some deeper explanations. I don’t know it just didn’t do it for me. It felt like so much of their relationship development was happening off page and all I got were lusting-after and make-out scenes. Juicy, but not enough.
The plot though is what really got me. It was just so boring. And predictable. I knew from the get-go what Wren was going to do. It was so obvious even the dress she wore for the Unveiling Ceremony basically screamed it. But the revelations were so dragged out it was aggravating. Half the story is just Lei learning court life and how to do things like dance and channel her qi energy, with only hints here and there about the real problems going on in this world. The issue of her having to sleep with the King was dealt with well, despite the graphicness of the scenes, and definitely affected things in the overall, but it wasn’t enough to really pique my interest, because it still took some time for her actions to affect the deeper plot of the story.
There is one thing that occurred in the end that kind of annoyed me. So spoilers. [SPOILER] When Lei’s Birth-pendant finally opens, the word is “flight” and she is suddenly all “oh yes this makes sense because Wren gives me wings and with wings I can fly and fight” and honestly none of that made sense to me. She mentioned her desire to fly all of three times in the book – once in the beginning while thinking of bird-demons, once while watching birds fly over the palace walls, and then at the end when Merrin was flying them out of the palace. But it wasn’t enough. If that was going to be the word that defines Lei’s life and future, then that metaphor needed to be more present throughout the story. And her reaction about it meaning to have the ability to fight made absolutely no sense to me. There was all this stuff about fire and how paper burns and such and I thought that made much more sense in terms of destroying the current court and building anew from the ashes. Wings to me means freedom or escape. Not fighting. There could have been something there using the idea of wings = freedom, but I don’t think jumping straight to fighting was it. [END SPOILER]
Sadly, this book just wasn’t for me. It started off well, but quickly turned into a drag. Nothing happened for most of the book, save for some awful moments here and there that just serve to emphasize the oppression of the Paper Caste, and it takes far too long for the really interesting rebellious stuff to get going and be revealed. The character relationships either started well and fell apart suddenly, or started slow and then jumped development without much warning. I wanted to like this one so badly, not only because the world-building is well-done and the writing style is for the most part beautiful and graceful, but unfortunately my boredom throughout the novel leaves me completely unenamoured with this one.
Trigger Warnings: rape, sexual assault, physical assault