Natasha Ngan and Emiko Jean bring subversion of romance tropes and woman empowerment to the forefront of Girls of Paper and Fire and Empress of All Seasons.
Natasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire along with Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean radiate not only female empowerment, but women seeking autonomy in worlds where they seemingly have none. Brought up believing that familial duty comes before their own hopes and dreams, as well as the will of emperors and kings, the characters Lei and Mari defy all odds and break free from the social confines of their worlds.
I tend to go into a book without knowing much about it, for a reason. I like to go in blind except for the fact that I know what genre, who the author is, and what little I can guess by the cover. I know, I know, I shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but with so many breathtakingly beautiful covers there are in YA fantasy it is easy to easily get swept away by enchanting covers.
Diving into both Girls of Paper and Fire and Empress of All Seasons was a wild ride to say the least. Both take place in an Eastern setting opposed to Western, which I’m searching out more and more as of late to broaden my horizons and diversify my reading portfolio.
This year my goal was for 80% of my books read to be written by women, which then lead me to wanting to go a step farther and looking for YA fantasy written by women of color. I’m so glad I did, because I’ve found an undercurrent of not only subversion of popular romantic tropes, but plotlines full of smashing the patriarchy from the inside out that I can’t help but want more of.
Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan takes place in a rich fantasy world with people different from our own. There are different castes, such as Steel caste which has animalistic features but are mostly humanoid in form, Moon caste which are mostly animal with the ability to speak, and the Paper caste, who are merely human like you or I.
The Moon caste rules over Ikhara, with the Paper caste being the lowest. The King keeps concubines, all of which are Paper caste, delicate with little power of their own and almost no autonomy. They are to remain untouched by any except for the King, which is punishable by being branded, sullied from living a normal life.
Lei is chosen to become one of the King’s Paper Girls, thrust into a life full of intrigue and backstabbing amongst the other concubines as they vie for favor from the ruthless King. Along the way, Lei falls in love. I knew that there was going to be a forbidden romance, but as I read I kept waiting for the cliche male to show up, but no such character was being introduced. It wasn’t until farther in that I realized that Lei was falling in love with another one of the concubines, which floored me. Intrigued to say the least after reading many YA fantasy books that seem to follow a standard plotline (which I eat up every time, we all have our favorite tropes), I still can’t get over how Girls of Paper and Fire caught me so off guard.
Usually, in this type of setting, the female lead falls for the male who is either royal or close to being, or a ‘savior’ to the so called damsel in distress, but in Girls of Paper and Fire there is none of that. The girls save themselves, and the royal doesn’t shift sides or become somehow kind and forgiven by the female lead.
This is not one of those plotlines, not at all. Surprising and refreshing, revolt from within, lead by women is both empowering and exhilarating to read.
Empress of All Seasons by Emiko Jean, though completely different, was much the same in tone and catching me off guard. In the land of Honoku, there is a tournament that is held that young women enter in order to become the next Empress, winning the Prince’s hand in marriage. A subversion of winning the fair maiden’s hand on its own, I was already sold.
Prince Taro, though privileged and brilliant, didn’t wish to be Emperor or married off to someone he didn’t care for. Mirroring the normal plotline of that of a female damsel, I enjoyed the subversion of the plotline immensely.
Mari, a yokai, which is the word for demon in Japanese, infiltrates the tournament in order to win the Prince’s riches to bring back to her village. Yokai are enslaved within the palace, but her village remains free. The Prince and she meet outside of the tournament, and they begin to the normal courtship routine that I enjoy when reading YA fantasy.
Though it is subverted, I love the plotlines that have the two love interests meet before they should have and that reveal later, where they see each other the way that was intended and the look of understanding and dread at the fact that who they met wasn’t who they seemed to be at first.
I’ll never tire of that trope, though again, Empress of All Seasons took said trope and turned it upside down then kicked it around a bit. Emiko Jean did so brilliantly, and Mari’s choices made and determination to win the Tournament of the Seasons solidified how refreshing it was to read a book that took normal, well loved and used plotlines and tropes and turned them inside out.
Mari choosing autonomy over everything else is something that will stay with me for a long time, as well as Lei’s journey in Girls of Paper and Fire. Both show that change starts from within, that there is hope as long as we fight, and that as women, we have to stand up for ourselves because in reality we don’t need saving, we merely need to take action.