“Because if this is to be my fate, I’m going to walk boldly into it on my own two feet.”
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.
Content warning: classism, sexism, rape, explicit death scenes
Positive content: LGBT+ characters, Asian culture, sex positivity
My reading experience with Girls of Paper and Fire was a beautiful reminder of how immersive reading truly can be. I have immense praise for the depth of world-building and social commentary of this book, as well as its lyrical writing and depiction of raw emotion. So, let’s begin with world-building and social commentary.
There is nothing more thrilling to me than starting a new book and realizing that I am going to be completely engrossed in its story from beginning to end. I knew immediately from the first few pages of Girls of Paper and Fire that it’d be that kind of novel for me.
If you’re anything like me, you have the skimmer’s habit. You’re there reading a line, and suddenly, your eyes glaze over and your mind is somewhere else. I am happy to say that I never had that experience reading this book. Every detail that went into the setting of this book felt purposeful. The story was never bogged down by Lei’s description of the world around her because I felt like I was seeing the world through her eyes.
Girls of Paper and Fire is heavily influenced by Malaysian and Chinese culture. From the names of the characters to the clothing; from the food to the architecture, it is clear that Ngan wanted her book to be a prideful celebration of these cultures while also being her commentary on their grim histories.
Speaking of histories, let’s talk about the serious aspects of Girls of Paper and Fire.
Firstly, it is no secret that this book’s driving action is a dark one: poor girls of the lowest caste being kidnapped from their homes and forced to be consorts of the king. It explicitly explores the harsh emotions that come with being forced into such a life as a young girl, and depicts multiple characters finding their individual ways to cope with feeling powerless.
It explores the concept of caste systems and the power gaps that come between them. It shows clear sexism and classism that comes with being a girl in the lowest caste. It truly is an heart breaking story as much as it is an empowering one. While we see Lei and her friends grow into their own power throughout the book, we don’t get to skip the harrowing events that led them there. And I am so thankful for that.
“It doesn’t matter how beautiful the cage is. It’s still a prison.”
If I had to pick a single aspect of Girls and Paper and Fire that I viewed to be the most impactful, I would say it is the writing of the book and how it helped bring the characters to life.
As I mentioned, every Paper Girl has her own reaction to her life as a consort of the king, and each one finds a way to cope with it. The way that each coping mechanism is described made each character feel unique and complicated in her own way.
There’s also a beautiful exchange between Lei and Zelle about being sex-positive and how emotions are powerful against the seemingly all-powerful system:
“‘There’s nothing to be ashamed of,’ she says gentler now. ‘You can be honest with me. Many of us yearn to be touched. To be loved.'”
“‘Yes, they like to think they’re in charge, ordering us around and taking women for their own whenever they fancy. But is that true power? They can steal and break all they want, but there is one thing they have no control over. Our emotions. Our feelings. Our thoughts. That is our power. Never forget it.'”
There are heart-to-heart moments such as these throughout the entire book. It really made me feel what the characters were feeling — all of the hatred and disgust for the caste and consort system; all of the love and lust for a brewing forbidden romance; the hope; the disappointment. Every emotion felt by the characters was genuinely depicted in this book with no use of disingenuous crutch phrases.
If I had to sum the way I feel about Girls of Paper and Fire in one word, it is this: purposeful.
Thank you all so much for reading this long winded review. I had a lot more to say than I originally planned for this review, but I’ve come to appreciate that long reviews typically have a lot of meaning and value for the authors. Hopefully that translated here!
If you’d like to see my real time, physical reaction to finishing reading Girls of Paper and Fire, check out my reading vlog that I posted to my channel this weekend.
Also: Kate Keehan from UnitedByPop conducted an awesome interview with Natasha Ngan where she talks more about all of the aspects that went into creating the world of GOPAF, and other behind the scenes elements you may want to see. Give it a read!