Girls Of Paper And Fire: YA on a mission

Girls of Paper and Fire is a YA novel from Natasha Ngan. Magical martial arts and forbidden love affairs are set against a vivid backdrop of ancient Asia. But this story goes deeper than just floating temples and epic fight scenes. It is a story about the struggle of sexual assault survivors and the terrible toll of racism.  

Natasha Ngan is a first-time author of the Paper Girls series, with her first book being published in 2018. The book deals heavily with sexual assault, something that Ngan admits in the Authors Note to having suffered herself.  

Natasha Ngan is a first-time author of the Paper Girls series, with her first book being published in 2018. The book deals heavily with sexual assault, something that Ngan admits in the Authors Note to having suffered herself.  

The novel was first published during the year of the #MeToo movement and is an important voice for feminine strength and the power of a support network for survivors. 

Ngan grew up between Malaysia and the UK in a multicultural family. Her story is an exploration on sexual abuse, but also the devastating effects of racism in a multicultural society. She believes that

“it´s important for everyone, but especially young people, to see themselves in the stories they consume”. 

Girls of paper and fire

The Plot

Girls of Paper and Fire is the first novel in a YA series. Lei is an innocent country girl in Ikhara, a Kingdom with three distinct races. Moon caste, demons, are the supreme beings and Paper caste, humans, are the weakest. Each year the Demon King of Ikhara chooses eight Paper caste girls to be his concubines. Because of Lei’s extraordinary golden eyes, she is forced to become a Paper Girl. The palace of the Demon King is a dangerous place. Lei must discover her own strength and that of her fellow girls to survive. And survival may lead to revolution.  

Review

In some ways, Girls of Paper and Fire is the quintessential YA novel. There are female friendships that are forged in unlikely circumstances, as well as the usual beautiful bully that tries to tear down our protagonist. Lei is garbed in fantastical gowns and makeup and gets to attend sumptuous balls and have the attention of kings and warriors.

These are normally positive plot details in a YA, but in Girls, they are all accompanied by the looming sense of dread, because these beautiful things can lead Lei to violence. Eventually, it is a catalyst for Lei to realise she is being seduced into sleepwalking through her own life.  

The threat of sexual abuse and violence is a presence throughout most of the book. Ngan is skillfull enough to ensure it is never sexualised and keeps it clean enough to remain within YA territory. 

Ngan’s novel isn’t afraid to deal with the strong narratives of racism and sexual abuse. She slips her messages in amongst the action and poetry of her sentences, never sounding like she is preaching or overtly educating her reader. Lei is a strong protagonist from the beginning, but the trials she faces at the palace are a fire to mold her into someone who is beginning to understand her strength and her moral code.  

Many times she is presented with situations that reinforce her helplessness against people who believe she is worthless. She finds her strength from within, but also from the help of the female friends she makes amongst the other Paper Girls and the forbidden love that blossoms in the darkness.

“I don’t want an easy life, I want a meaningful life”.  

Girls of paper and fire

There was only one moment towards the end when Ngan’s plot and character choices didn’t quite align with the usual skilfulness of her writing. Ngan didn’t seem to believe in it herself, as a character spent a long time explaining why something would happen the way it did. It was hard to believe that the people who had been planning revenge for two hundred years would decide to suddenly trust an untried girl with no martial arts training.  

Summary

Girls of Paper and Fire is the perfect YA novel on the outside, forbidden love affair, action, and a strong female heroine trying to find her courage against all odds. However, it is a lot more than that. It is a novel dedicated to the destructive idiocy of racism within one country. But most of all it serves as a message to its readers that victims can also be survivors, especially with the help of trusted friends.  

— Bliss
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