Status: Finished Reading (14 November 2018)
Edition: Amazon Kindle
If words could fully express just how much I adored this book then this review would’ve come a lot sooner. But I’ve spent the past week in a post-GoPaF haze (and yes, life before this book and after this book is a very valid time marker).
A few months ago, when I first heard about a new Asian-inspired fantasy hitting the shelves in late-2018, I was very excited. I’m a huge fantasy fan, but I’m also so tired of seeing fantasy stories set in Eurocentric worlds. I am always happy to get my hands on a book that’s inspired from (and correctly portrays) POC cultures.
I have also always loved the “girls of paper are made to burn” trope. I vividly remember writing a poem for it in 2013 (except that one talked about girls made of wood that catch fire). There is something so raw about a character who is intended as fodder turning into a fuel for their own fire. Reading the blurb for this book was a surreal experience because I could not believe something I loved so much was going to be making it to the YA world – and I was going to have a chance to read it!
But then I heard that the romance is sapphic in nature – the story of two girls who fall in love with each other while fighting an oppressive caste system. And that was my hook-line-sinker moment. As an Asian sapphic myself, getting to see that reflected on paper (in one of my favourite genres of writing, at that!) seemed too good to be true. But that’s not all. I also happen to come from a culture that has historically had an oppressive caste system (one that, perhaps, is being abolished legally, but socially is so ingrained and learned that it continues to both aggressively and micro-aggressively hurt people). I’m glad this was a sensitive topic that was handled by someone who would treat it with respect and gravity (unlike white authors who have previously used it as a “cool” plot device).
I feel like it’s also very important to address the sensitivity with which this book handles sexual assault and gendered violence. For one, the book comes with a trigger warning – something that is disturbingly rare in publishing (I’ve only seen a handful of traditionally published books that contain them – and some of them have treated it like a joke). That alone represents how seriously the author treats the subject (and the victims of it) – as a crime with longstanding after effects and not a plot twist that should never be spoiled. I respect the trigger warnings provided, and I also appreciate how the prose handled everything related to it. While the darkness of the trauma is in no way diluted, neither are the characters written off as broken and hopeless. There is a message of survival, of strength, and continuing on that reflects through the words without mocking trauma or how one chooses to process it.
Aside from the excellent way in which the book handles serious topics, from a purely theoretical standpoint, this book is so good. The writing style is rich – the world building is lush but not overbearing; the emotional climate is well reflected without falling flat; the character building is consistent. For a first book in a series, the story creates enough momentum to carry itself forward without crumbling as a singular entity.
The romance, oh the romance! That was easily one of my favourite parts of the story. I fell in love with Lei and Wren’s love. It’s so realistically built up given the context it is set in. I truly felt it, which I haven’t actually felt with characters in a book in a (sadly) long time. It was almost like this book injected some life back into me as a reader.
Girls of Paper and Fire, is easily one of my favourite 2018 reads. It’s also easily one of my all-time favourite fantasy books. I can only imagine, with such a strong opening, this series is on its way to achieve more excellence. Thank you so much, Natasha Ngan, for giving us this beautiful masterpiece. I cannot wait for my physical copy to come in the mail so it can adorn my bookshelf forever.
Warning: This book contains scenes of violence and sexual assault (depicted from a POV character). The author has discussed this on Twitter.