Ah, the dreaded disappointment of an over-hyped book that simply does not deliver. This book promised so, so much! Starting from that gorgeous cover, there was supposed to be a slow-burn lesbian romance, a rich world inspired by Malaysia, plus magic and a suspenseful plot. It’s actually quite amazing that none of those promises were kept and the writing was… let’s say sub-par as well.
GIRLS OF PAPER AND FIRE
by Natasha Ngan
Published by: Jimmy Patterson Books, 2018
Hardcover: 400 pages
Series: Girls of Paper and Fire #1
My rating: 3/10
First sentence: There is a tradition in our kingdom, one all castes of demon and human follow.
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.
It’s been a while since I’ve been so very disappointed in a book! It started out quite well with an introduction to the world and its underlying mythology out of which the castes were born. There’s not much information but it makes you want to find out more an really dive into the story.
I don’t quite know where to start with why this book failed so badly for me, so I’ll just tell you in no particular order the problems I had while reading.
Let’s start with Lei, the main character who has golden eyes (which, like, makes her super special but not really). Rarely have I encountered such a bland, boring, hypocrictical, idiotically stupid protagonist. I’ll forgive a bit of naivete but by the end, I was so disgusted with Lei’s behaviour that – even had she single-handedly saved the world I wouldn’t have cared for her. She arrives at Court as the ninth chosen concubine to the Demon King – a fate she naturally and understandably despises. She is terrified of being called to the king’s bedchamber and constantly thinks that she wants to defy him. But unfortunately, Lei is all talk (or rather thought) and no action. She is super clumsy in her classes – which I guess is supposed to be endearing but really isn’t – but her only defiance is in really stupid ways. If you want to fight what’s happening, don’t be an idiot about it!
But what bothered me even more is that she has no personality. She constantly thinks she wants freedom in very grand thoughts and flowery sentences that want to be quoted so badly but aren’t really all that quotable. But that word “freedom” has no meaning other than “not being a Paper Girl” to her. Lei has no hopes or dreams. She misses her family, sure, but there is nothing that she dreams of, nothing she wants to do with her freedom should she ever get it. Why should I root for someone who doesn’t even root for herself? Who has no hopes, no dreams, not even a freaking hobby?! Lei is all wannabe Braveheart speeches and no substance.
As for the caste system, of which Paper caste is the lowest and the one Lei belongs to – you could replace Natasha Ngan’s idea with any other three castes. The different appearances of the castes has no impact on anything. The fact that the Steel and Moon castes have animal features (some of which are terribly described and make no sense, btw) has no bearing on the plot or the world or anything at all. So why add such a feature when the entire world and story would have been the same if all people looked human? I had a lot of trouble imagining some of the characters. The Paper girls have a teacher, for example, who is part hawk. There is a lot of talk about her “beaky nose” but I still don’t know if it was an actual beak or just a slightly crooked human nose. Other demons have fur all over their body while yet others only have hooves or horns growing out of their head. There is no consistency and the descriptions are simply not good enough to get any clear image of what anyone looks like.
Which leads me to the writing in general. It became more and more unbearable the further I read. Words and phrases are constantly repeated! It felt like the author only ever thought up one way to describe a certain thing (a dress, a building , someone’s hair, etc.) and kept using that one over and over. The way Lei remembers things other characters said to her reminded me of a high schooler trying to reach a specific word count for an essay and using repetition as as filler. I swear I read the same two lines – a general threatening Lei’s family if she didn’t cooperate and become a Paper girl – twenty times! It was jarring to say the least. Readers usually don’t forget a line of dialogue from three pages ago, you don’t have to repeat it word by word to make sure we still know…
Even had the descriptions not been as repetitive, they were still not enough for me to create the lush world that was promised. Mostly, we get descriptions of clothing items and a bit about the court and all its splendor. But throwing in a few Malaysian-inspired words does not make for rich world-building. I have finished this book and still have no idea what it’s like to live there. There is barely any mention of the culture, of traditions, of the mythology that was hinted at so nicely in the beginning. The few times that information is given about the wider world, it comes out of nowhere, just in time when the plot needs it. This complete lack of foreshadowing makes this book read like a first draft rather than an edited, finished novel.
This review is already getting long, but we haven’t even talked about the romance. Oh boy, the romance. There is nothing slow-burn about it. Lei simply sees one of the other Paper Girls and thinks she is super beautiful and cat-like. Wren, the girl in question, also happens to be the best in all the classes and sometimes gives Lei long looks. And then, boom, they’re madly in love. Like I-will-die-for-you-love! That’s it. They barely have any conversations and when they do, the stilted dialogue makes sure the reader feels as uncomfortable as possible. I swear, if you read those lines out loud, you wouldn’t be able to stop laughing, it sounds so unnatural. It feels especially awkward when two girls swear eternal love for each other but haven’t even done small talk. Like what’s their last name? Their favorite food? What did they do before becoming Paper girls… Ah, I guess that’s not important, just as long as they will die for each other!
I do have to say that Wren, at least, was an interesting character! For the first third or so of the story, a mystery surrounds her and she has agency, other than Lei. That mystery is revealed incredibly out of the blue, like the author made it up on the spot (see lack of foreshadowing). As for the other Paper girls, they are cardboard cutouts with a single attribute attached to them. There are the twins, the nice but naive girl whom Lei befriends, and others that you never get to know but are supposed to care for when bad stuff happens to them. Blue is the stereotypical mean girl with not a single shade of grey to her.
Now Blue’s character just made me sad, because it had so much potential. If this is supposed to be a feminist story, about girls sticking together, about women helping women, then the mean girl should at least have more than one layer. She gets this really interesting backstory that made me want read about her rather than Lei, but behaves only within the limited frame of “bitch”. If she does or says anything at all, it is mean and it harms Lei. It would have been so nice to see the girl that gives the others a hard time come around when it’s important. But sadly, no.
Even the king is just evil personified with no depth whatsoever.
Another thing that drove me up the wall was how stupid most of the characters behaved. So Lei learns a secret, one that must be kept at all cost! And what does she do? First of all, she talks with Wren out in the open, at the Paper court where she has no idea if anyone can hear her. And she doesn’t even talk in code, they spell out their plan clear as day. Secondly, Lei feels super superior for knowing this secret and honestly drops hints of “I know something you don’t” to her maidservant – a girl who is absolutely loyal to the king and the court and the whole Paper girl thing. I wanted to slap everyone in this book at least once. I’m okay with characters making mistakes, but being consistently stupid is not okay.
The next point is difficult for me to talk about because I have no personal experience with nor do I know anyone who has experienced sexual assault. I have, however, just recently read a book that dealt with this topic in an amazing manner (Deerskin by Robin McKinley – highly recommended!) and I was surprised with how different these two authors’ approaches were. Lei goes through something terrible, something unimaginable! And while there are some repercussions in the form of nightmares, that’s all there is. This thing that happened to her simply doesn’t come up anymore after that. She has a few nights of bad dreams and then – nothing. I understand that everyone deals with grief differently, everyone has their own way of coping with things, but the complete lack of even mentioning this horrible thing felt off, especially because this is a first person narrative and we are constantly in the protagonist’s head.
What really bothered me though was how the story completely ignored the other Paper girls’ experiences. Except for Aoki, none of the others even gets acknowledged! Even worse, Lei gets called so very brave for refusing the demon king, for running away the first time he called her to his bed – BUT WHAT ABOUT THE OTHERS? Are they cowards for enduring, for doing the terrible things expected of them to protect their families just as Lei wants to protect hers? Again, I have no experience and am going simply by gut feeling here, but this made me extremely uncomfortable throughout the whole book. I wanted to hear the other girls’ stories so badly, for them to get a voice too.
That leaves me only with the plot. While it hits the ground running, once Lei arrives at court, nothing much happens. Lei gets dressed up nicely, goes to her classes where she learns to dance and behave like a proper lady or whatever, stares at Wren, and dreams about that elusive freedom which she wouldn’t even know what to do with. On the rare occasion something does happen to further the plot, it’s like a slap. It comes out of nowhere and leaves you slightly befuddled. As the world doesn’t make sense and we never get any explanation of how it works (why is there a king, how does he rule, what does that entail), you can never know what to hope for. Would the country be better off without the king or would a new one simply replace him even if there is no official heir – other than being a disgusting rapist, we don’t know much about him – or is there a sort of rebellion wishing for a democratic government? Why are there raids on villages, what does the king get out of it? What about the magic that is sometimes mentioned and then completely ignored again? As you see, it’s all really messy and incoherent.
Either way, at the end, a lot of things happen very quickly, and almost none of them make sense. On the one hand, the ending makes me very curious how the author will continue this story and it can only get better. But on the other hand (that’s a gigantic other hand), I really don’t want to do this to myself for another 400 pages, even if it does get a little better.
I was promised a stereotype-smashing, feminist, LGBT romance in a lush setting with an explosive plot (literally all phrases I got from blurbs of this book). Promises were broken. This series ends here, for me.
MY RATING: 3/10 (for the okaybeginning)