I don’t want an easy life. I want a meaningful one.
Rating: 4 stars.
Initially I gave this book a 3.5 star rating, but the more I’ve been thinking about it the more I’ve wanted to bump it up. So I have. Overall, I loved this book, and it was beautifully balanced between trauma, romance and the dystopia-crushing subplot. The last quarter of the novel was an action packed page turner building up to a crescendo of an ending that left me reaching straight for the sequel.
Read if you love:
- F/F romance
- Asian-inspired fantasy
- Demon races
- YA dystopia (caste system)
Kidnapping, sex trafficking, sexual assault, rape, violence, sex shaming, violence against animals, caste discrimination and racism, raids and mass murder.
Lei is a human girl in a world ruled by the dominant demon castes. There’s the Moon caste full of humanoid animals, the Steel caste of human/demon hybrids, and the Paper caste who are fully human. Lei is Paper, and she lives a quiet life working in her father’s herb shop. Right up until the day the Demon King’s soldiers kidnap her to be one of the King’s Paper Girls, a group of eight concubines given the ‘honour’ of serving the Demon King. Her unusual eyes have painted a target on her back, and now Lei must live in the palace with the other Paper Girls, attending lessons to make her the perfect consort for the king. Manners, court proprieties and of course ‘pleasure skills’. Lei is learning to survive in her new role, until she breaks the most important rule of all – she falls in love. Her ill-fated love affair with another Paper Girl drags her into a plot to overthrow the Demon King’s whole regime, and she has to decide what she’s willing to do for justice, revenge, and freedom.
What did I love?
- Dark fantasy: I’ve talked plenty about how much I love truly dark fantasy, particularly in YA. Girls of Paper and Fire tackles a really, really dark but really, really important topic in the realities of sex trafficking and rape trauma. Lei and the other Paper Girls go through hell. They’re either given up by their families or stolen from their homes. They’re isolated, with no contact with anyone but their tutors, their maids, the king and each other. They’ve been forced to sacrifice their present and future, and their bodily autonomy to the King as sex slaves, and even once their year is done they’re expected to stay on in the palace and never return home. This is seen as an honour to the Steel and Moon castes, because of the inherent discrimination and the socially enforced racist attitudes towards Paper castes. Most think that the Paper Girls’ lives at home with their family were barely worth living, and that they love and respect the King for keeping them “in their place”. It’s haunting to read, particularly the casual and destructive way that the Demon King uses the girls whenever he wants, and this rape is completely normalised in Ikhara.
- Slow burn romance: While it was clear from the off who Lei was going to fall in love with, the relationship was slow-growing and felt authentic. There was no insta-love, and that felt very real for two young women who were facing trauma and danger every day of their lives. Both were, for their own reasons that are spoiler-y but equally valid, cautious in showing their affection and wary of opening their hearts. The risks to their romance felt real. The Paper Girls belong to the king, so they were breaking a cardinal rule at giving themselves to each other, and the stakes were high. High enough to claim lives. The romantic subplot in Girls of Paper and Fire was a thread of light throughout the novel that pulled the reader out of the darkness before it got overwhelming which is very important in a YA novel this dark.
- Queer character development!!! This is probably a fairly specific thing to have fallen in love with, but Lei goes through a very authentic process of realisation regarding her sexuality where she examines her feelings for Wren and compares them to how other female characters talk about their male lovers. Is it a fairly short scene? Yes. Did it make me relate to Lei as a queer reader to a queer character? YES. I love reading about LGBTQ+ characters who have already come to terms with their sexuality (Ryan La Sala’s Reverie comes to mind as a great example of that) but I also loved getting to experience Lei’s discovery alongside her. It reminded me of being a confused teenage girl, and I loved that.
What didn’t I love?
I don’t have much of a criticism for this book. My only complaints aren’t real complaints. The ending of this book is a kicker, and I ‘hated’ it, but only in as much as I wanted a happy ending for Lei and Wren, but hey. When has that ever happened in the first book in a YA trilogy? It’s not a faultless book, but there’s no grievous writing crimes here either and if after a few days I can’t think of a criticism immediately, I’m not going to nitpick to find one.
Where can I buy?
If you can, always support your local or independent book sellers!