Goodreads: Girls of Paper and Fire
Series: Girls of Paper and Fire #1
Source: Publisher Giveaway
Published: November 6, 2018
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.
TW: violence and sexual abuse.
Girls of Paper and Fire brings readers to the heart of a vividly imagined world where humans, Paper caste, are the lowest of the low, and women are treated as property. In many ways, it’s a painful story, with the crimes against the female characters standing in sharp contrast to the beauty of the world they inhabit and the magic performed within the palace walls. I’ve read many YA takes on sexual abuse/slavery, but Girls of Paper and Fire manages to be a bit more raw and real with its themes, even as other elements of the book (though strong) are typical YA fare.
One thing in particular that appreciate about the story (though “appreciate” certainly seems like the wrong word) is that the protagonist does get fully drawn into the life and “duties” of a Paper Girl at the palace. In many YA books I’ve read on similar topics, the other girls in the story bear the brunt of participating in these activities, while the main character manages to refrain (Wither comes to mind, as does A Girl Called Fearless). Having other characters in the story participate and suffer while the main character does not always seems mildly judgmental to me, as if the protagonist is somehow “purer,” even when the book is ostensibly trying to show that many people, not just the protagonist, are victims. Having Lei be hurt is difficult for the reader to watch, but it makes the story honest.
I also enjoyed that the main character eventually learns that she is not a special snowflake for not wanting to be with the king. She enters the palace with the idea that many of the other girls want to be there or generally don’t mind it, and the accusations of other characters that she seems to think she’s “better” than they are ring true. As the story goes on, she realizes that the situation is more complicated than she realized, that different women have different motivations or reasons for being there and that even women who aren’t visibly protesting might not actually enjoy what is happening to them.
However, I do think Lei could have used more characterization in her transformation from capture, rebellious girl to actual rebel. The author does note that Lei (and, well, many people) have a number of valid reasons to despise the king, but her willingness to participate in an actual rebellion and possibly kill people if necessary still felt sudden to me. The side characters interested in rebellion or even an all-out war appeared to have better motivations and preparation for what they were proposing.
There’s also the small matter that characters spend a lot of time going on about Lei’s eyes and how incredible and unusual they are, and this seems as if it should have been more important. I’m waiting for some standard YA reveal in the next book that the protagonist is actually a goddess or touched by the gods or something else that DOES make her a special snowflake, but the hints in book one that the eyes would be relevant never panned out, and at this point they seem like a red herring.
Overall, however, the book has a strong pacing and a varied cast of characters set in a world that the author convincingly gives breadth and history—even as she keeps readers trapped on the grounds of the palace. I actually don’t know if I love it enough to continue with the rest of the stories because I categorize it as “good but not great,” but overall I would recommend it to YA fantasy fans.