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Rating: 3/5 stars
Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most cruel.
But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.
In this lush fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most oppressed class in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards still haunts her. Now, the guards are back, and this time it’s Lei they’re after–the girl whose golden eyes have piqued the king’s interest.
Over weeks of training in the opulent but stifling palace, Lei and eight other girls learn the skills and charm that befit being a king’s consort. But Lei isn’t content to watch her fate consume her. Instead, she does the unthinkable–she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens the very foundation of Ikhara, and Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide just how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.
CW: animal death, sexual abuse, violence
I’m just gonna say it–Girls of Paper and Fire‘s plot is fairly generic. I mean, how many stories can you name that follow a teenage girl forced into a role she’s untrained for and taken to the royal palace, where she meets the best friend, the mean girl and the love interest. Though she is opposed to the corruption of the ruler she’s now in close quarters with, she’s too scared to actively fight back. However, she’ll probably come into contact with a rebel group while she is inside the palace and eventually learn to fight back against the regime….
Okay, the above paragraph makes it seem like I took this story’s sort of generic plot line as a fault, but I honestly didn’t! Story arcs like these are actually good set-ups for sequels, and aside from the fact that I’ve seen it many times before, there is nothing harmful concerning this plot pattern. There were also a few plays on this plot line–the love interest is a girl named Wren (it’s a sapphic romance!!), the plot takes place in a beautifully diverse world inspired by the author’s Asian roots, and really, at its center, this story is about sexual assault and fighting back against the patriarchy, misogyny and injustice.
As for the characters, they were fine, but not really worth my notice, and I probably won’t think about them say, a month from now. Again, Lei’s character progression is akin to many other YA main characters, but she was still well-developed–she has a good heart completely dedicated to her family, and she begins the book with little agency, but she reclaims it bit by bit as the plot progresses.
I’m sad to say that I don’t have much to say about Wren, but she was an extremely healthy love interest for Lei, and that reveal about her identity made her such a bad-ass!
I loved the relationships that the Paper Girls have with each other. Instead of trying to tear each other down for the king’s affection, they were each supportive of the other, their solidarity obvious in every interaction. Additionally, one girl falls in love with the king, a truly vile rapist and tyrant, yet she is never looked down upon. Instead, her feelings are handled with care, and the author uses this to show how abusers can hide behind a mask of charisma.
As for the world and world building in Girls of Paper and Fire, I would like to reiterate my approval of the fact that this is a diverse Asian-inspired fantasy. None of the characters are white, and the customs and festivals in this book are inspired by actual Asian ones. However, I just don’t think this book gave me a true grasp of the world of Ikhara. I could not tell you even the slightest bit about where all of these places are located. Throughout the book, names of locations are repeatedly dropped with some characteristics tied to them, but this all flew way over my head. I sadly imagine this world to be a blob with some uhh.. mountains somewhere, and then there’s a desert over there, and I think Lei’s village is called Xienzo….. and that’s literally all I can tell you about the world–I’m not kidding.
Overall, Girls of Paper and Fire does have a plot that calls to mind a ton of other YA novels—think Shatter Me or An Ember in the Ashes. But if you liked these novels, there’s a high chance you’ll like this too! However, Girls of Paper and Fire definitely adds something new to the table in terms of discussions on rape culture. It also features a sapphic romance, which completely subverts the trope of a girl being taken to the palace and falling in love with the prince/king, who’s typically an asshole. The author also talked about her inspirations for Ikhara in her beautiful author’s note:
“I feel extremely lucky to come from a multicultural home. It has shaped my influences and perspectives—and will forever continue to do so.”
As for whether I would recommend this book or not, I’d say that tons of other people did not share the same qualms that I did with this story and instantly added it to their favorites list. You have a high chance of being one of those people. I also think this is a must-read for its discussions on sexual assault.
Additionally, this book is UKYA, and I know we’ve all been disappointed with UKYA authors lately, but this book serves as a reminder to all of us that there are some UKYA authors out there who are actually doing some good for this world. (And that’s all she has to say about that.)
Anyways, I’d better wrap this review up, so let’s discuss in the comments! If you’ve already read this book, what did you think about it? Do we agree or disagree on anything? Please share your thoughts with me!
I also talked about this on Twitter, but I originally rated this four stars, but upon further consideration, I bumped it down to a three. I really think writing this review helped me figure out that I had a lot more quibbles with this book than I originally thought!