Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan is a Malaysian-Chinese, young adult fantasy novel that I picked up because the hype intrigued me enough to look it up at my local library. I must confess that I wasn’t expecting to like this novel at all as my experience with hyped YA fantasy hasn’t been great on average. The last one I picked up that I became super excited about ended up having dick for fantasy and world-building. However, with that said, Girls of Paper and Fire fucking blew my bleeding mind.
The story follows a young adolescent named Lei who is ripped away from her family for the Emperor, who then decides that he wants her for his concubine based on her unique beatific traits. Once she arrives at the palace, she starts to question the practises that formulate the identity of the kingdom, recognising that the only way she’ll obtain her freedom is by lighting the world on fire.
I honestly have no idea how to talk about this book because every instinct in my body just wants to scream with amazement. Fantasy is one of my favourite genres and I tend to gauge the quality of fantasy narratives based on the care that is given to world-building and formulating a realm that is crucial to the genre. Girls of Paper and Fire has stunning world-building and fantasy elements that are threaded with colourfully lush and radiant cultural influences, so much so that I felt my eyes widen at certain points and my lips spread in a grin of pure delight. The book blew my fucking mind with how magically it was crafted, even though the air and tone of it can be dark in nature.
The mesmerising world that Ngan has created isn’t only there to be a mentally visual aesthetic. It’s a voice all its own, a personal commentary on how even oppression can be dressed and dolled up to become something to envy, hiding all of the ugliness and hatred deep within layers and layers of velvet royalty. Fighting hatred is far more difficult when you can’t discern the line that separates such poisonous beliefs and practises from those that people grow to identify comfort and security with. Why fight a thing when it’s familiar and manageable?
I’ve been on the receiving end of hate my entire fucking life to the point where I have learned to manage my feelings because it’s such an everyday circumstance versus talking about how it harms me. But does that make it okay? Does it make me feel less human and less worthy as an individual whenever I’m confronted with it? Fuck no. That’s when I realised that it was time to stand up and use this voice that has been buried beneath the dust of fear and anxiety. I don’t like confrontations, but I will not sit idly by on my ass and let someone dehumanise me simply for being brown-skinned or having a separate belief system than them.
That is what Girls of Paper and Fire is about, and still so much more, and that universe is used to help tell the stories and express the deep-rooted motifs surrounding the need and importance of fighting oppression and the necessity for intersectional feminism in a way that is brilliantly accessible, heart-touching, and fiercely unforgiving.
If you don’t care much for environments and atmospheres in your fantasy narratives, then how about political intrigue? As I’ve mentioned above, you have an Emperor who, based off the synopsis, sees something he wants and takes it, with total disregard for everything else surrounding that person or thing he desires. Women especially are viewed as weak creatures whose sole purpose is to be a breeding bot for others. You can see this clearly more in the higher statuses of wealth and glamour than the poorer castes. I found the intricate examination of gender roles to be reminiscent of the current climate in Asian societies. Nearly every Asian culture has a perception of females that is low and degrading. Women can’t be this or that and their only role is to cook, clean, and procreate, so to speak. There is no equality there.
When these things arise in the story of this novel, they are challenged and by a young girl who was fortunate enough to have a family that taught her to embrace her inner strength, and who via tragic life events was forced to grow up and learn of her fortitude in horrible ways. The setting and political climate within the walls of the palace are so charged and heated with intensity that they work to draw the reader further into the world while stealthily causing you to root for Lei, probably without you even realising it. These connections coupled with the interwoven commentary on racial subjugation keeps the suffering and atrocities from becoming merely seasoned plot devices, or attributes of shock value alone. They have a place and role to play that is quite specialised and it’s bloody brilliant.
All of these things truly make Girls of Paper and Fire an outstanding to read, yet they still can’t top my absolute favourite aspect and that is the depth of the diversity of characters that you see and engage with. There are lots of characters that you will see regularly, even though they are side cast members, but each one is given just the right amount of attention and personality to prevent them from blending into one forgivable and interchangeable entity. They are individuals that are unforgettable and inimitable; each one with a struggle or backstory that someone else outside of the pages of the book will be able to formulate a personal bond with. On top of that, they aren’t limited to being Malaysian-Chinese inspired people only. They are from all the corners of Asia—Eastern, Western, Northern, Southern, etc.—and that is what made my Asian heart bloom into a fire of adoration. Nothing is appropriated or disrespected. Instead, the different cultures and identities are utilised in a way to highlight their uniqueness while respecting the similarities that tie them closely together. It works to further enhance and complement the overall world-building I gushed about in the beginning. See, that world-building gig is multi-faceted as all hell.
If all of that still isn’t enough for you, then the last thing to mention is the searing, slow-burn, interracial sapphic romance that is both sensuously romantic and beautifully bold. The interaction between the two lovers is infallible, real, and so very honest that my own heart would race whilst reading about them as they grew closer. The understanding that they share of one another is one that stems from both insecurities and a willingness to listen rather than assume. It’s the mark of a healthy relationship. Yes, things aren’t always perfect—far from it—but the ways they sacrifice for one another, while never giving ultimatums or jeopardising the respect they hold for each another, particularly as equals, was breath-takingly gorgeous.
All in all, Girls of Paper and Fire was astounding, and I can’t wait to read what sorts of stunning magic that Ngan will conjure up next. I highly recommend this book to all fans of fantasy (adult and young adult alike), Asian literature, and/or people who find pleasure in gradual narratives with something to say about fighting your fears, especially in the face of great adversity.
5 lanterns outta 5.