Natasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire had me utterly gripped from the premise alone. In execution, it was even better than its promise.
I knew, heading into Girls of Paper and Fire, that it wouldn’t be the easiest read. With the central character, Lei, coming from the oppressed Paper caste, and gifted to serve the king as a Paper girl, in any way he deems fit, there were some tough themes of consent, sexual assault, and the aftermath to grapple with as the story unfolded.
But Ngan managed to deftly balance those tough themes with the sensitivity that it needed. I found myself reading Girls of Paper and Fire in smaller segments, rather than devouring it whole as I typically would, but that was largely due to my own emotional needs, rather than any narrative hiccups on the novel’s part. The fallout was visceral in how the girls dealt with what was happening to them — and as someone who has also had their own brush with assault, it was perhaps one of the best depictions I’ve read in years — but also, how they built themselves back up again, and reclaimed their lives.
The novel was slow going at times, but that worked in its favor. It allowed those themes to soak into every word, and land in the way Ngan wanted them to. It was purposeful and a breakneck pace would have done a disservice to the characters and their relationships.
And the relationship, especially, between Lei and Wren was nothing short of stunning. With the brutal reality of what was due to face them for the rest of their lives — in service of the king — the way in which they came together, first through friendship, and slowly growing to love, was so beautifully written. I was completely engrossed in their interactions with each other, and wanted them to triumph, not just for themselves, but for — and with — each other.
That theme of self-empowerment and self-love was another driving force throughout the novel. There was, as you might expect, some friction between the girls chosen to serve the king — while some owned that life, wanting nothing more than to please, others like Lei and Wren fought against it, to free themselves. Their reaction to their particular circumstances were diverse, and informed the relationships with the other Paper girls. In some cases, that became friendship, in others a butting of heads fueled by jealousy.
It added a depth to the world, and to how the structure of the castes enabled them to keep people in their “place.” It was, though in a fantastical setting, a perfect reflection of how rape culture can — and does — embolden and allow the men within a position of power to use it to their advantage and exert it over those seen as lesser than them. Ngan expertly showcased how that culture — and the intense misogynistic behaviors that are masked as tradition — can become the status quo.
For the king, for everyone, the castes and Paper girls are how it has been, and always will be. But the way in which they fight back, how Lei and Wren, push and fight back, provided a kernel of hope. That things could, and will change, as women come together and support each other. But not only that, refuse to allow their lives, their stories, be defined solely by the men who surround them.
Girls of Paper and Fire tells a tale of survival, of reclaiming your agency, of finding love. It is a story that, undoubtedly, I will come back to again and again. For the worldbuilding, for the raw emotion, for the deep understanding of just what the aftermath of that kind of trauma can be like, and while you may never fully heal from it in the way people might expect, you can be stronger for it.
Ngan’s story is rich, is beautiful, is devastating and magical, and one of the best novels that I’ve picked up so far in 2018.