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.
Girls of Paper and Fire was on everyone’s most anticipated book releases in 2018, and the book is now an effortless favourite among many readers – with good reason. Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire is a young-adult fantasy, set in Ikhara, a world inspired by Malaysian culture. It follows Lei, a girl of the lowest caste who is taken from her home to become a Paper Girl: one of eight girls chosen to serve the King. Despite the opulence and privileges afforded to Paper Girls, Lei refuses to accept the injustices enacted by the Demon King and refuses that her future as Paper Girl is her ultimate fate. Thus, she does the unthinkable: she falls in love. This is a provocative, heavy, emotional, and brilliant story about trauma, autonomy, assault, and oppression.
I was going to write a book review for this, but found myself really engaging with the themes of the story – so I guess this isn’t really a book review. Rather, I guess this is my critical analysis of the themes that I really enjoyed in the story. This analysis is probably best read if you have already read the book, but in case you haven’t read it, this review/analysis is spoiler-free.
Note: This review will discuss sexual assault and trauma.
Rich worldbuilding with subtle Asian influences and distinct socio-political structures
I was compelled to read Girls of Paper and Fire because Ngan stated that this book was inspired by her experiences growing up in Malaysia. As a Malaysian-Chinese reader who rarely ever sees Malaysian representation in the books that I read, I was eager to read this book and find those precious nuggets of familiarity. Though it wasn’t entirely what I expected (and that’s not a bad thing at all!), Girls of Paper and Fire offers subtle Malaysian influences that feel organic to the story’s world. The story casually references batik, specific garments such as the cheong sam, and also food, such as nasi lemak and ondeh ondeh. The world of Girls of Paper and Fire is thoughtfully constructed and feels authentic to the history described in the story.
What I found more interesting and compelling, however, was its nuanced and complex socio-political and hierarchical structures. In ways, the world in Girls of Paper and Fire feels familiar; the inclusion of caste systems and how these caste systems are intimately tied to lineage, how these perpetuate class and racist systems, and how appearances afford specific privileges and denote greater social power. For instance, Moon castes (highest class) are demons and possess animalistic characters, Steel cases (middle class) are mixed and have both human and demon attributes, whilst Paper (lowest class) appear human. Girls of Paper and Fire offers interesting discourse on how appearances (specifically, demons of the Moon caste are associated with greater physical power as well as greater social power because of their bestial characteristics), and how this contributes to the ongoing cultural deprivation of the people in the Paper caste.
The worldbuilding ties together nicely, and this is evident in how the socio-political structures of Ikhara affect and influence Lei’s journey across Girls of Paper and Fire. I really enjoyed how Ngan threaded the implications of being Paper caste, ideas of ‘possession’ of other human beings, dehumanisation, slavery and servitude, sex in relation to power, and resistance that were meaningful to Lei’s personal journey across the book. Considering the array of themes explored in the book, Ngan does an incredible job at exploring a variety of topics without curtailing its importance to the story. The amount of thought given to the worldbuilding shines bright and brilliantly.
An examination of trauma, loss, and assault
The most profound feature Girls of Paper and Fire is its intimate and personal exploration of trauma. Lei is a girl who lives in a remote village that was raided a decade ago when her mother was taken, and still feels the impact of that trauma in her older age. When Lei is kidnapped and taken to the Demon King’s palace, not only does Lei relive this trauma, readers will see the extent of the violence caused by the Demon King and his regime, as we meet an array of characters who have also experienced violence in varying forms. Not only do these experiences shape Lei’s character and her motivations across the book, but it also explores generational and collective trauma and how a sense of powerlessness are inflicted upon poorer and oppressed communities.
Loss is also explored in Girls of Paper and Fire. The story explores loss of agency, particularly for Lei and the other Paper Girls. Lei grapples with her new identity as a Paper Girl and the destiny tied to being one, and how her ability to decide for herself and to forge her own path are wrenched from her forcefully. The story delves into the psychological and emotional effects of having your freedoms taken away from you, and how this leads to a sense of loss of self-actualisation, and the ability to be their own person. Though the story is fantasy, what occurs in this book is a reality for many communities, especially marginalised women, and is thus great commentary on how systemic violence can have a significant and traumatic effect on individuals.
In particular, the explorations of trauma and loss tie together when the story explores Lei’s experience with sexual assault at the hands of the Demon King. Not only does Lei relive the trauma of the past and the trauma she imagines her mother experienced, further trauma is afflicted when she, and the other Paper Girls, have to spend their ‘first night’ with the Demon King. This made me think of a thing called ‘anticipatory grief’ – when mourning occurs before impending death or loss. In ways, I think what the Paper Girls, Lei included, experience is a kind of anticipatory grief — particularly when they contemplate their loss of autonomy and freedoms, their right to choose and consent, their own powerless, loss of the futures they could have had, and the culture that permits these injustices and wrongs to happen. The events that follow are disturbing and horrifying, but will undoubtedly be a safe avenue for readers to examine and contemplate these experiences.
Examines how people participate in upholding oppressive systems
Girls of Paper and Fire is a great look at how systems of power and violence are upheld. In particular, the story offers a complex and thorough look sexism and classism, and how it operates on a personal and systemic level. Generally speaking, the Paper Girls are valued only for their beauty and their compliance, whilst deviance from these standards are punished. The Paper Girls are regarded and labelled as sex objects and property to the Demon King, exploring how labelling women as property can shape the trajectory of their experiences, the degree of personhood they are afforded, and the decisions made on their behalf by those more powerful.
What I found insightful and brilliant was how certain characters adapted to their role of being a Paper Girl. There were girls who were angry and fought back or hid their resistance behind loyalty, but there were also girls who felt that they could not do anything (and so did not). More interestingly, there were those who fell in love with the Demon King, falling for his emotional manipulative ways. Readers may be frustrated with these girls, and may be bewildered – how could these girls possibly believe this? after what the Demon King has done? Whether it be Stockholm syndrome, grooming, or engaging in a kind of self-protectionism, Ngan offers a multifaceted portrayal of how people react and adapt in situations of powerlessness and abuse.
In addition, Girls of Paper and Fire also illustrates how people in oppressive systems – specifically, the Demon King’s brutal and violent rules – can participate in maintaining such systems. In the story, Ngan briefly but powerfully explores how institutions that value an individual for their obedience can create environments of competition. The Paper Girls are made to feel that they need to compete with each other (for power, for privilege, for the Demon King’s favour), and although they could work together in solidarity to survive or protect each other, internalised sexism and personality traits (where they have greater propensity to vie for dominance or to align with the status quo) motivate them to become active participants in their own oppression, particularly when failure is associated with shame and feelings of worthlessness.
Resistance; reclaiming your body and agency
Dark, confronting, and terrifying as this story may be, Girls of Paper and Fire is not thoroughly grim and desolate. The story demonstrates how sexual assault is an act of violence and a mechanism for asserting power and dominance that functions to diminish personhood, rather than something that is about desire and sex. However, Girls of Paper and Fire offers a beacon: that people can reclaim their power, agency, and their bodies through small but powerful acts of resistance. For Lei in particular, who seeks greater meaning in her life than mere existence and the ease that may come with obedience, her way of reclaiming power, and to feel empowered, is by falling in love.
However, Lei doesn’t just fall in love with anyone – she falls in love with another Paper Girl. The story explores the friendship, and later romantic relationship between two girls — specifically, two Asian girls. And through their romance and their growing love for each other, the girls find strength, empowerment, love, and hope. Against such overwhelming odds, hope can be such a powerful and wonderful thing, and can change the course of their lives. How it plays out in the book, however? For those of you who haven’t read it yet, I’ll leave it for you to find out. All I can say is that Ngan explores this beautifully, and I’m definitely excited for Girls of Storm and Shadow.
MY CONCLUSION: RECOMMENDED
Girls of Paper and Fire is a solid first book to what, I anticipate to be, a very interesting and captivating series. Thought-provoking, compelling, and the ending offering a promising direction of its story, I’m looking forward to reading Girls of Storm and Shadow come November 2019.
Is this book for you?
Premise in a sentence: A girl from a lower caste is kidnapped and made a ‘Paper Girl’, one of the Demon King’s concubines, and has to survive and resist the violence in the king’s palace.
Perfect for: readers who love fantasy; readers who enjoy dark reads with heavier themes; readers looking for a book to read that tackles trauma and assault; readers looking for Asian f/f representation.
Think twice if: you’re not in the mood for a heavy and dark read; are unable to read because of the content (warnings below).
Genre: young adult, fantasy
Trigger/content warning: graphic depiction of the death of an animal (page 18), kidnapping, torture, physical violence, sexual assault/rape, death
It’s not often that I read a book that really engages me with its themes, but Girls of Paper and Fire is such a good book, and an accessible way to explore how systemic violence and oppression functions as well as sexual assault and how people reclaim their agency. This was such a fun post to write! When I started writing book reviews back in 2014, I wrote my reviews with a heavy sociological and discursive lens (which I’ve since moved away from), but it was fun to do it again.
- Have you read Girls of Paper and Fire? What did you think?
- Are you looking forward to reading Girls of Storm and Shadow? Have you read it? What can we expect?
- What themes engaged you when you read Girls of Paper and Fire? What did you find interesting about the book?