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.
[Sappho’s voice] Sweet mother, I cannot weave, slender Aphrodite has overcome me with longing for a secret warrior-assassin-goddess and her rebel girlfriend.
So, what’s this book about?
In Ikhara, the world our protagonist Lei inhabits, there are three castes: Moon, the reigning caste that is entirely demon; Paper, the downtrodden caste that is wholly human and Steel, who are endowed with both demon and human elements. Every year, the Moon caste’s king selects eight Paper Girls as his concubines—but perhaps more aptly termed “sex slaves”. When Lei is dragged from her small village to be a Paper Girl, the only reassuring talisman against her new jarring reality is finding her mother who has been similarly taken years before. Now fear and the threat of sexual violence is a tight undercurrent through everything, but it was tempered with hope—and relief when Lei meets Wren, another Paper Girl with a feline grace and many unspoken secrets.
Soon, Lei learns that she has a whole new set of fears to discover: the ones that come with loving someone you’re very likely to lose.
“We might be Paper Girls, easily torn and written upon. The very title we’re given suggests that we are blank, waiting to be filled. But what the Demon King and his court do not understand is that paper is flammable. And there is a fire catching among us.”
Ngan deftly navigates her way through a thorny and twisted tale of morality, anguish, and trauma—taking elements of Asian mythology, her experience growing up in Malaysia and her own imagination and pressing them into a beautifully rendered fantastical collage that has representation in sorely needed ways. Lei and Wren have a friendship forged in the heat of a battle against their abusers which later engenders a feverish romance, born of mutual respect. Seriously, the sheer amount of sapphic content in this book warmed the hollows inside my heart!
“Her kisses heal the parts of me that the King broke. They tell me: You are strong, Lei. You are beautiful. You are mine. And, always, most important: You are yours.”
The only quibbles I can point out are plotlines that occasionally lagged and the fact that it took me some time to really warm up to Lei as I was oftentimes more intrigued by side characters than I was by her. It also felt like the book seemed to know exactly where it wanted to end up but completely insouciant about how it got there and as a result, some scenes took on a numbing sameness and the story felt riddled with repetition almost as often as it felt exciting and engaging.
With all that aside, there are many aspects of the book that I think demand deeper examination: Ngan weaves in powerful themes of self-empowerment and self-love, identity and self-discovery, while fervently denouncing classism, homophobia, and the objectifying of women.
Ngan delicately carves out, with the precision of a scalpel, all the subtlest ways rapists are abetted by cultures in which women are viewed as only partial people, the table scraps of men, where women’s bodies are intensely politicized, where social hierarchies outrageously privilege certain members because they’re considered untouchable, and where there’s a presumption of male authority and righteousness, and with equal accuracy, Ngan also hammers home the politics of power that uses rape as a tool.
Ikhara is a society where misogynist sadists flourish because misogyny is justified as tradition, maleness comes with a presumption of violence and women are perceived as public property and less deserving of basic rights than men. This book prompts you to not only think about rape through the moral lens of lust, depravity and shame but as a violence that is born from power and not desire. The Moon king uses fear as his medium and his position of power as an enabler to carry out this act of violence not because of any unquenchable urges of sexual desire, but because wrenching these girls from their homes and raping them makes him feel power over them—and ultimately over their castes. The images are haunting, the topic is difficult, but sadly all too believable and too reminiscent of our real world.
This tradition of Paper Girls has generated decades of women hurtling headlong in silence, no reflection, no echo, no self—because rapists were handed license to operate and keep their victims silent, ashamed and without justice. But as these women’s paths cross during the most vicious and traumatizing event in their lives, they will learn from and teach each other all the shades and colors of strength and endurance. The greatest feat of strength that’s ever been witnessed was the one these women performed every day: continuing to live for the sake of themselves and their families, when it would be so much easier to stop, and it’s that miracle of hope and rebellion that was the start of a chain of miracles that will eventually see them through their pain.
The focus on recovering from trauma, forging a functional self out of the wreckage and reclaiming your body, too, is powerful. And over the course of this book, we see these women grow even further into deep, multi-dimensional characters who were not beholden to the story of the men around them, but rather had their own agency on full display.
Girl of Paper and Fire is the story of survivors of sexual violence who are reclaiming their own narrative and learning that they’re not strong in spite of anything but powerful because of everything. They’re whole as they are and complete unto each other and so very worthy of love.
“When the world denies you choices, you make your own.”