I went into reading Girls of Paper and Fire with little knowledge of the book. You have to admit, marketing teams don’t do the greatest job explaining books in their blurbs and that completely makes sense. However, this book gave me some serious Raise the Red Lanterns meets The Hunger Games vibes. The stories aren’t verbatim, but I loved the addition of concubines in a fantasy series.
First, let’s talk about the setting of this book. It takes place in a fantasy where humans, beasts, and in between live within their own class system. The beasts are considered “demon” caste based off of real animals but with sentient minds. Think Tony the Tiger. Humans are considered “paper” and are just plain old humans. Then there’s the “steel” caste which are amalgamations of both humans and demons. These are folks who look human, but have animal traits like a tail or ears. For all intents and purposes, the demon caste is at the top of the class hierarchy, then comes steel, and then comes paper.
In this world, eight human girls are picked from eight of the provinces in Ikhara. For one year, they’re to serve as concubine to the demon king (similar to that of The Hunger Games: to show dominance over the paper caste). As all the girls for that year have been chosen, Lei never assumed she’d be picked too until the general of the king’s army came and took her from her small village home in the same manner her mother was taken a few years back.
The only reason why Lei’s taken is her eyes; she just happens to have golden eyes that no one else in the world has seen. The general believed it’d be a wonderful addition to the other paper girls and for the king. The rest of the story follows Lei as she becomes a paper girl forced to pleasure the demon king in anyway he wants. None of the girls want to be there, but some understand their duty to the king and do what they must to please him. Please be warned, there is some sexual assault depicted.
As the story continues, rebellion begins to take place as the king’s kingdom uprises and one of the paper girls turns out to have a bigger secret than Lei assumed.
This is most definitely a different kind of fantasy novel and I noticed a few reviews where the readers didn’t quite understand the method Natasha Ngan took when writing this story. I wanted to take a minute and talk about the points:
First off, Lei isn’t your typical “girl on fire.” She’s not strong and she’s not ready to fight for a cause she doesn’t understand. She’s a little aloof and clumsy and very afraid of her duties as a paper girl (I would be too). She’s also more determined to find out what happened to her mother than raise a rebellion against the king. I thought this trait made Lei a very real person and it lended well to the overall direction Natasha Ngan is going with the novel.
I didn’t see a lot of action in this first book, but that’s okay because it’s world building and such. It’s a tad boring in the beginning, but it does pick up towards the middle part.
I absolutely loved the use of concubines as a theme in this story. I don’t agree with the methods obviously, but it really draws back to a huge part of Chinese history. It wasn’t until mid-century that China made concubinage illegal which means that wealthy men were keeping concubine up until the communist revolution. It was frowned upon for a man to have more than one wife, but keeping concubine for bearing children was okay (eye roll). This is why I had so many Raise the Red Lanterns vibes while reading this book. I’ve also seen depictions of concubines in modern Chinese fantasy dramas as well. Here’s my source for more info.
There’s also a lot of representation especially LGBTQ representation. I don’t want to give anything away and spoil it, but I thought it was very real and beautiful.
However, I will say this book isn’t completely amazing. First off, there was Lei’s eyes. The entire story they boasted about how her eyes were so unique for someone born from humans. I thought this might indicate some magic or something, but it really fell away.
Also, despite the amount of world building done here, there isn’t a lot of history. Much of what is built throughout the story is the current issues. However, there isn’t much explanation on the steel caste (those who are both demon and human). There isn’t mention of why certain traditions existed or even a map of Ikhara (only a map of the palace). I would have loved to know more about the traditions and why they are the way they are.
I was also confused by what happened to all the other Paper Girls and women in the court towards the end. I feel like the focus was on one particular point and then everything else kind of dropped off.
The other thing was the queen. In the story, the paper girls are asked to take a special contraception to avoid pregnancy and a queen is mentioned randomly throughout. However, there wasn’t any queen showing up to events or balls and I honestly asked myself where she was in the midst of all the action.
But aside from that, a pretty strong start to a new fantasy series. I’ll most definitely be keeping up with Natasha Ngan’s work and probably read the second book once it publishes.