Girls of Paper and Fire is one of the most anticipated YA fantasy releases of the year. Featuring a diverse cast of characters and an LGBTQ+ heroine, it is a story of magic, mayhem, rebellion and young love.
Two hundred years ago, in the kingdom of Ikhara, the demon Bull King of Han took control of the provinces via the Night War. Before that, each province had its own governing system and the people of the Paper caste (fully human) were respected for the services and skills they offered. But after the war, the king’s prejudices were imposed upon all, and the people of the Paper caste became the lowest of the low. The Moon caste, made up of demons “with whole animal-demon features on a humanoid form, and complete demon capabilities” rule the empire while Steel caste “humans endowed with partial animal-demon qualities, both in physicality and abilities” occupy an uneasy space in the middle.
The years of bloodshed bred resentments and uprisings among the clans began to take a serious toll on the king’s rule. To encourage unity and prove the egalitarian nature of the king’s heart, eight Paper caste girls are selected to serve as the king’s courtesans every year, becoming known as the infamously beautiful Paper Girls. Their families are showered with gifts and wealth, the girls themselves granted a life of ‘luxury’ in the palace. Eight girls a year is a small price to pay for peace. Except this year, there is a ninth.
General Yu made a foolish mistake. He’s been demoted and needs to find a way to earn the king’s favor once more. He has heard rumors of a Paper caste girl with golden eyes and hopes that by offering this unique human as a concubine to the king, he will once more find favor in his court.
Seven years earlier, Lei’s village was raided and her mother taken. Their small town in the Northern province has not seen another attack since, and the peace has given Lei a false sense of security, so she doesn’t fully realize the Paper caste’s precarious position until General Yu strides into her father’s apothecary and demands Lei go with him. It is quickly apparent that if she does not leave willingly, he and his soldiers will use whatever violence necessary to take her. She goes with them, determined to escape at the first opportunity.
She swiftly learns that’s not an option. She also learns she has not been paying attention to the world around her. During her trip to the palace, she sees entire villages that have been burned to the ground, all the Paper caste people killed for supposed rebel infractions. Once at the capital she hears of floods, earthquakes and forest fires, as though even the land rebels against the Bull King’s rule. She watches glittery events where Paper caste people are given as party favors. And beneath it all lie the groans and grumbles of the oppressed, too scared to revolt but too abused not to dream of freedom.
Since Lei is the ninth girl - an extra taken after the usual Paper Girl selection - her introduction to the harem is met with some resistance. However, General Yu has made it clear that death will be the result of failure, that he will kill both her and what’s left of her family if she doesn’t succeed, so Lei works hard to create a place for herself and finds an unexpected bonus to her captivity; friendship with peers like Aiko - and love with the beautiful, strong and courageous Wren.
I’m no expert in Asian fantasy but this offering seems to be a fusion of the legends of several different cultures blended into an intriguing whole. Wren reminded me of the Japanese Kitsune (minus any animal features), with her feline grace and other worldly powers. She has the fox’s trickiness and strength, as well as its secretiveness and obsession. The animal-human-demon hybrids come from several different types of myths and should be somewhat familiar to readers of anime graphic novels.
This is an intense book, highlighting how little power women held in the ancient world. I loved that the author is careful to include the intrigues, gossips and power struggles amongst the concubines and how they vied for the king’s attention; and she also does an amazing job of capturing the horror of this system. The trouble wasn’t simply the way in which women were treated like property and how easily their lives could be destroyed (or eliminated) for simple mistakes, but that it pitted them against each other, keeping them from forming alliances that could overthrow the power structure. I also appreciated the author’s emphasis on the culture of rape within these confines. Lei did not, absolutely not, want to have sex with the king. He uses force to get her to comply. The scene is not graphic, but it is made clear that reluctance and refusal were not options.
Something that I found truly exceptional about the writing were the action sequences, which are perfectly utilized. The author gives them the pacing and adrenaline of a real-life fight, so that everything happens with a heart-pounding speed. They are also utilized sparingly, which makes the tale far more enjoyable. I appreciated seeing people fight, but too much of it would have left the story saturated in violence when you add in the general brutality and cruelty of the world in which the narrative takes place.
The author’s pacing is excellent, giving us a tightly woven story that moves smoothly and rapidly to its climatic, dramatic conclusion. That conclusion, by the way, leaves room for a sequel.
The author handles the sexuality in the story perfectly for the YA market. There is definite passion between Lei and Wren, but the details of their sexual encounters highlight the fact they enjoy each other physically without giving overt specifics. The love story could have used a bit of fleshing out but given that we are dealing with teenage heroines, physical desire being a large aspect of why they are together is understandable. There is definitely affection, caring and understanding between them, I just wish that had been explored that a bit more. The romance isn’t the emphasis of the book though, so it’s understandable this portion is a little weak.
The other complaint I have is that Lei herself is a rather naïve character and I felt it took her a while to recognize the dangers and horrors of the world she lived in. She isn’t very cunning and seemed to lack the survival instincts which might have made her more nuanced.
Those are very minor flaws, however, in an otherwise solid piece of fiction. Girls of Paper and Fire is a must read for anyone who enjoys a well told fantasy tale featuring a diverse cast of characters. For those with teen readers, the rape culture subject matter might mean it is appropriate for high school aged teens rather than the middle school crowd.
Buy it at: Amazon/Apple Books/Barnes & Noble/Kobo
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