Girls of Paper and Fire
A deft portrayal of female friendship and sexuality, Natasha Ngan’s new novel, Girls of Paper and Fire, is a satisfying tale told almost exclusively through the eyes of strong and courageous young women.
Seventeen-year-old Lei lives in Ikhara, an empire with a caste society that’s based on how much animal-demon blood a person possesses. Lei is part of the lowliest group: the fully human Paper caste. Above her are members of the Steel caste (those with a mix of both human and animal features) and Moon caste (those who are fully demon, and whose members appear to be animals but possess human intelligence and extraordinary strength and abilities).
While Lei and her father live in a remote province, the cruel regime has directly touched their lives; Lei’s mother was taken during a raid. Now, years later, Lei is shocked when a caravan of animal-demon soldiers comes to take her to the Demon King’s court as one of his annual batch of concubines known as Paper Girls. Terrified and furious, but knowing that compliance will keep her family safe, Lei enters into the pampered yet horrific life of a Paper Girl imprisoned inside the Hidden Palace. Among the girls, Lei allies with sweet Aoki and graceful Chenna while also making a couple of enemies. But it’s the beautiful and mysterious Wren who most sparks Lei’s interest, and as the two girls become closer, Lei falls into a web of love, intrigue and danger.
A touching (and refreshingly steamy) lesbian romance is at the core of this thrilling fantasy, and it adds emotional weight to an otherwise familiar plot. The sexual violence experienced by Ngan’s characters is portrayed as exactly that: traumatic violence, with a range of emotional and physical responses from the victims and no redeeming arc for the male perpetrator.
Lei is a compelling narrator because she is so refreshingly commonplace. She’s not a magical chosen one, nor a long-lost heir, nor a sleeper agent. She is simply a young woman whose bravery and passion will be relatable and recognizable to readers of Girls of Paper and Fire, despite the fantastical world that surrounds her.
This article was originally published in the December 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.