Natasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire is the first book in a brand new series, veering away from the futuristic, technological themes of her first two novels. With its Asian-inspired setting, subversive themes and high-stakes romance, Ngan has crafted an intoxicating concoction, suffusing every chapter with oriental tradition, ancient rituals and folkloric history.
In this beautiful and brutal world there’s a ubiquitous class system that determines how castes – humans and demons – are treated. The Paper castes are fully human, considered the lowest of the low and persecuted as a result. The Steel castes are part human, part demon in both physicality and ability, whilst the Moon castes are full demon in form and strength, ruling with an iron fist over the lower ranks.
Lei is a Paper caste with extraordinary eyes the colour of molten gold. She lives a simple life, working with her father in his herb shop, but word of her rumoured beauty has reached the worst ears. When the royal guards storm her home, Lei is seized and transported to the Demon King’s palace. Each year, eight beautiful Paper Girls are selected to serve as the king’s concubines and Lei is to be the special ninth; she’s told it’s an honour, though it’s anything but.
As her Paper Girl training begins, Lei and her fellow mistresses are taught the skills, charm and grace expected from a king’s consort. But as her first night with the ruthless Demon King approaches, Lei falls into a forbidden romance that strengthens her resolve and refusal to submit. It opens Lei’s heart and mind, throwing her into the centre of a dangerous plot to assassinate the King and alter the harsh world order.
“We might be Paper Girls, easily torn and written upon. The very title we’re given suggests that we are blank, waiting to be filled. But what the Demon King and his court do not understand is that paper is flammable. And there is a fire catching among us.”
Ngan’s lush and exotic setting is reminiscent of Memoirs of a Geisha, filled with a grandeur and opulence that’s darkened by the ugly, cruel reality that the Paper Girls face. Lei’s training echoes that of Chiyo when she’s inducted into the geisha house, and her treatment is just as harrowing, if not more. Not only does Lei have to contend with the ever-present threat of disappointing the King but also a backbiting rivalry with the other Paper Girls, some of who view this as their only chance to better their lives and guarantee the status of their families.
Girls of Paper and Fire is refreshing in its diversity, delivering a wholly Asian story with a F/F romance that overthrows any initial ideas readers might have about Lei falling for the unpleasant King (as in Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince) or one of his impressive guards. It’s clear that Ngan delights in subverting genre and gender tropes and it makes for a complex and exciting story that deals with some hard-hitting issues that extend into our real world: sexuality, oppression, objectification, chauvinism and megalomania. As such, there are some scenes involving assault and coercion that are particularly tough to read, though thankfully never gratuitous or too graphic.
There are moments when the Demon King’s violent demeanour cracks and we glimpse the fear underneath the violence; his terror of losing control and power. It’s a mere glimpse though, as if Ngan is deliberately holding back, and it takes away some of the character’s complexity, making him a one-note bully. This book is too good not to have a villain that’s as multi-faceted as its protagonist and her kick-ass love interest. Though there’s plenty of time for character development as the series moves forward.
There’s such imagination and exquisite detail in Ngan’s writing that you’ll feel a deep sense of loss when that final page turns. Lei’s adventure has only just begun and with a thrilling epilogue that throws the whole story wide-open, book two is one you’ll want to pre-order.