‘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.’
Firstly, I have to say that I absolutely loved this book. I honestly had to resist posting about a hundred miniature hearts instead of a review, but I will try and to be more eloquent than that.
Girls of Paper and Fire is set in a richly constructed world where society is divided into three groups depending on overall species, with the highest being the Moon caste and the lowest being Paper, the entirely human caste that Lei belongs to. Against her will, she is removed from her home and taken to the palace of the demon king for a year to be a Paper Girl, one of eight girls (Lei an unprecedented ninth) made to become his concubines. At the palace, the girls are housed together and expected to attend both a variety of lessons and the king’s bed when he summons them. Understandably, Lei dreads this and finds herself gravitating towards one of the other girls, Wren, whom she finds intriguing.
Given where Lei’s narrative is headed, it must be said that there are scenes surrounding rape, sexual abuse and heavy violence, often all at once. This is not done gratuitously or simply for dramatic effect, particularly as the nature of said scenes has nothing to do with desire, but with power and the king’s need to exert it over others. He doesn’t have the Paper Girls taken from their homes because they are beautiful and he desires them, but to show the Paper caste that his power is absolute and that he can do as he pleases with their women. There is very little indication that he has any sexual interest in the girls other than to use them as objects to prove his own superiority and ensure that they feel helpless and completely at his mercy. He doesn’t take them to bed because he wants them, but simply because he can and believes he is entitled to, highlighting some of the most disturbing issues about male entitlement in today’s society.
Lei’s relationship with Wren is beautifully written, the focus not on their sexual relationship (though they do spend nights together), but on their slowly growing to understand each other and discovering different facets of themselves along the way. One of the many things that Girls of Paper and Fire does well is women looking out for and being supportive of each other in a world that would have them silent and divided, and this extends beyond Lei and Wren finding solace with each other. It’s not only Lei and Wren who learn from each other, the other girls finding ways to survive and examining how they feel through conversation with those in the same situation, as worrying as they sometimes find the reactions and feelings of their fellows. In this, they are primarily concerned and not judgemental, as women are so often portayed in the media. Though some of the girls are almost content in their new roles, others are very much not so, the journey of the latter presented with positive messages about reclaiming body and mind after such traumatic experiences.
Each of the Paper Girls that the reader gets to know demonstrates that there are different kinds of strength and ways to survive, themes that are all too relevant to women across the globe today prevalent in what is an immersive fantasy world written in lyrical prose. Girls of Paper and Fire is one of my top five reads of 2018 and I hope it will be so for many, many others!
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton
Pub date: 6th November 2018