I think it’s safe to say that I’ve struggled writing this review. I finished reading Natasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire last month, and I’ve sat down numerous times since desperately tyring to get my thoughts about it in some coherent order. To no avail, until now. It’s not that I didn’t like the book – let me get that clear first of all – but I do think I read it far too close to Tracy Banghart’s Grace and Fury and Somaiya Daud’s Mirage.
Ngan creates this incredible world inspired by Asian mythology and her own experiences growing up in Malaysia. Within it, ‘humanity’ is split into three castes:
- The Moon Caste – the highest caste that is made up on demons with incredible animalistic attributes and all seem to be arrogant and vile beings;
- The Steel Caste – who are half-demon, half-human, with some animalistic attributes but are still very much human; and
- The Paper Caste – the lowest of the low in their fully human forms and therefore the most oppressed, looked-down-upon caste.
The protagonist, Lei, is Paper Caste. She lives with her father in a remote village people often forget about. The most ‘action’ they seem to have had was a decade before the story starts, when a number of people, including Lei’s mother, were kidnapped by Moon Caste soldiers. Now, the soldiers are back for a Paper girl that has eyes of molten gold. A Paper girl that happens to be Lei.
Like Amani, kidnapped from her home planet in Cadiz to become the body double for the half-Kushaila, half-Vathek Princess Maram in Mirage, Lei is taken from her loved ones, with their lives threatened should she try to escape. She, too, is taken to the Palace and there she is forced to become a Paper Girl. Like Grace and Fury’s Graces, Paper Girls are concubines picked for the Demon king of Ikhara. But Lei takes on the Nomi role, forced to try and stifle her headstrong nature and become a plaything for the King in order to win his affection, or else a price must be paid.
So, did I read Girls of Paper and Fire too closely to Mirage and Grace and Fury?
Or, perhaps, more and more elements in YA novels are simply becoming overused.
Either way, Ngan’s book was definitely one to read. The world is incredible and I was desperate for more about it. The Moon and Steel Caste characters are described so vividly that you can clearly see the wolf elements of one and the bull in another. On more than one occasion I found myself looking down at my own skin, nothing more than a paper caste in Ngan’s world, wondering what life would be like were I within the pages.
Lei is an unlikely hero, making her all the more lovable. She’s taken out of her comfort zone, thrown into a life where her success determines the fate of her loved ones, and struggles with the sudden feelings that have grown for a fellow Paper Girl. But, still, despite the disadvantage she’s been put in, she somehow becomes strong. Not physically, but mentally. She steps out of the shadows and becomes strong enough to stand up for what is right, what she believes in. To fight for herself. To say ‘no’. She shows true strength of spirit and that’s an incredible type of character to have in a YA novel.
Like Mirage, Girls of Paper and Fireis yet another much needed reminder that a single grain of rice can tip the scale and it’s well worth the read. ESPECIALLY for that final page that has you eager to get your hands on the next book.