This book wasn’t quite what I expected – I knew the basic premise, but not much else – but I really enjoyed it. It’s hard for me to say it was a fun read, because Girls of Paper and Fire deals with some extremely heavy topics. First and foremost of these is sexual assault, so a heads up that I’m going to talk about sexual assault, slavery and institutional oppression in this review.
Ngan’s series takes place in a world where there are three castes – Paper, Steel and Moon. Paper people are fully human, named that for their supposed fragility; Steel are a mix of human and demon; and Moon people are demons with animalistic features. The Moon caste rules with an iron grip, under the watchful eye of the Demon King, and Papers live with the fear that their village will be the next to be razed to the ground. Every year, the Demon King takes eight Paper girls to be his concubines – but the main character, Lei, has unusual golden eyes and is selected as the ninth.
Girls of Paper and Fire doesn’t quite read like YA, despite being classified as such; there are no miraculous escapes for the concubines, who eventually have to serve their role, and despite a hope spot for Lei she is also assaulted. They’re turned into commodities, their every move observed. Yet, in the midst of this suffocating role, Lei falls for another of the Paper Girls, and has to hide her growing feelings.
The treatment of sexual assault in this book is fantastic – it’s horrid and sudden, and there’s no attempted humanizing of the Demon King. Sometimes, villains are just villains. What really stuck with me, though, was the treatment of one of the other Paper Girls who is caught sleeping with somebody other than the Demon King. It rang a little too familiarly for comfort, and I imagine anybody who’s ever dated or been trapped with somebody who gets violently jealous felt the same way. It also made what otherwise would have been a rushed love story make perfect sense; Lei and Wren’s closeness is sped up in the face of such claustrophobic, abusive circumstances.
I think my main issues with Girls of Paper and Fire is the climax. The pacing for most of the book is excellent, but near the climax, things start to speed up and become hard to follow. it took me a few tries to figure out who was doing what, where, and when.