Published by Jimmy Patterson Books on November 6, 2018
Genres: Young Adult, Fantasy, Diversity, LGBT
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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.
TW: violence and sexual abuse.
What does a girl who has unusual golden eyes see that everyone doesn’t? While some people may think becoming a rare Paper Girl, or one of the King’s concubines as a privilege, Lei sees it for what it truly is – an abuse of female rights where young girls are forced against their will for the King’s pleasure. Girls of Paper and Fire talks about a subject that is prevalent in Asian history, but one that is rarely spoken about or explored in much detail – becoming the King’s concubine.
I’ve learned how to live with nightmares. I could cope with one more.
While the thought of living in the palace amongst other royals may be enticing, it’s the actual act of having your body taken away from you just to serve your purpose, that is really highlighted. And unlike Lei, most of the other Paper Girls take on their responsibilities, whether reluctantly or slightly willingly. Lei on the other hand, from the start of the book until the end, stands by her strong stance which could be treated as treason and defying the King – but she believes her right to her body is more important than a life of servitude. Much of the book focuses on the training of these Paper Girls and the caste-based system that they come from – some with privileged familial ties, others with blessed features – whereas Lei comes from a small rural town and has never received training to become a Paper Girl.
So you get what you’d expect, when you bring a bunch of teen girls together – bickering, gossip, bullying and general competitiveness, but soon Lei and the girls find their place in the palace. Until they get called by the King, you see. For the whole book, you can sense the relative fear and unease that Lei feels about being a concubine and serving the King, and it’s a rather uncomfortable experience. Although everyone tells her that she’s lucky to be there, you don’t need to be a modern day feminist to see how wrong it is. This fear is written in such a sensory way, and is accompanied by triggers of sexual assault and rape, that you have to see whether Lei will make it out of the palace safely. And that’s what I found gripping about the book, along with the mystery and f/f romance within.
Girls of Paper and Fire also explores the twice-taboo relationship of Lei and Wren, another Paper Girl – not only are females loving other females unheard of and forbidden, but they are also defying the King. The sense of danger is balanced out with the love, curiosity, support and solace that they find in one another, and let me say I loved seeing how their relationship unfolded. Wren herself is shrouded in mystery, disappearing during the night, keeping to herself, being careful not to form bonds with others. I was curious to see what would happen between Lei and Wren, whether they would pursue their relationship, what would happen if they did/didn’t.
But if there’s one thing palace life has taught me, it’s how to follow orders. Even if on the inside, you’re raging against them.
Along with this, there is an interesting exploration of different castes based on their makeup – Paper Castes who are fully human without special abilities, steel castes who have partial animal-demon qualities, and moon castes who are fully demon and the most privileged caste of all – such as the Demon King that they all serve. This leant to some fascinating elements of world building within the world – including how, no matter how high born or privileged you are as a paper caste – the steel/moon castes will always be above you.
Girls of Paper and Fire is an Asian fantasy that will light the fire within you when it comes to female rights, and it is a story that will stay with me for a long time. While it explores a somewhat discomforting topic, I loved the element of fire and emotion within Lei as one of the Paper Girls. It’s a visceral #ownvoices Asian fantasy about becoming the King’s concubine, and what happens when you feel like your life is entirely out of your hands. I loved the caste based system and how this book is inspired by the author’s upbringing, and the f/f romance was also beautiful to see. Definitely a fantasy that I recommend!
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Trigger warnings: sexual assault, rape, animal cruelty
Thanks to Hachette Australia for sending me a review copy of this book!
Girls of Paper and Fire is available from Australian bookstores for RRP$19.99 or from The Book Depository.
Girls of Paper and Fire is our The Name of the Book Club November book of the month! Stay updated on Twitter for dates to our book club meets in Sydney and Brisbane and our live show.