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.
Ngan presents a poetic, interesting story about a girl struggling with duty and love. While at times the poetic nature suffocates the plot and the pace is rather slow-burning, Girls of Paper and Fire is a story you can get lost in if you give it a chance. While I wasn’t quite on the edge of my seat with this book, I did enjoy and am looking forward to the next one.
I listened to Girls of Paper and Fire on Audible with the narrator Allison Hiroto. I could honestly listen to her speak all day, her voice a clear lullaby. What fell short to me was emotion. It seems Hiroto had one voice for males and females, and she didn’t stray from that. I could be nodding along, listening to her beautiful voice, happy as a clam, then realize that the scene is violent and I should be anxious along with the character. This wasn’t a huge issue for me and I still finished the audio book, but I may not read another of her narrations in the future.
One notable point I want to commend Ngan for is not making the story a cliche “x-number of girls are sent to a palace to compete for the love of the King/Prince”, which I totally thought the story would be. Eight girls being picked every year to be Paper Girls for a King? Sounds like a competition! But it really wasn’t. There was a competition to become a Paper Girl, and that takes place before the book begins. The girls are all on the same playing field from the beginning of the book, no competition. And the King isn’t Good Guy #1, which is also refreshing.
This story wonderfully incorporates the LGBTQ community. Ngan openly writes about gay and lesbian couples in the book, sometimes so subtly I barely even batted an eye. She didn’t put a beacon on it saying “Look at me! I put a gay couple in my book!” Instead she wrote it naturally, like it was just something that was in the story because it’s normal. I think she did a great job of making the book welcoming to those who connect with the LGBTQ community and subtle enough for those who don’t involve themselves with or support the community. Anyone can still enjoy the book.
As I touched on, the story is very poetic. This definitely can go into the pro column, but I’m not going to make you read a paragraph about me explaining why detailed descriptions is great for a story. Instead, I’ll say how it hurt this one. Ngan painted beautiful pictures, but sometimes they were distracting. If I’m to be focusing on a fight, a love scene, etc etc, I don’t want to hear about every little detail in the scene. Get to the meat, let me become erapt, then move on. I may even describe it as Ngan taking the “show don’t tell” line and leaping over it. A little too much show, not enough tell. (But that saying really equates to thoughts/feelings of the character, so take that with a grain of salt.)
I wanted more about the lives of Paper Girls in the story. Nearly every chapter in the book was about Lei and her personal growth or essential interactions with other characters. But aside from the very beginning where they briefly explain her duties (which needs explained to push the plot), we don’t see much of what it means to be a Paper Girl. Often in the book Lei says “we took a break from our Paper Girl duties to…” but we don’t know what those duties are exactly. Just something that would have added to the story.
THE BOTTOM LINE
This book was an interesting read. For me, it’s probably going to be one of those series that get better as it goes on, and I’m willing to give the series that chance. If you like books about royalty, forbidden romance, Asian culture, and/or badass female characters, this book is definitely one you should try.