SHELF AWARENESS

PHS junior reviews author Natasha Ngan's debut novel

Mild spoilers ahead and one medium spoiler ahead.

Title: Girls of Paper and Fire

Author: Natasha Ngan (debut novel)

Rating (Based on age): 15+

Plot Summary: Girl is kidnapped, forced into prostitution, abused in multiple ways, and still comes out of it a total boss. And has time to fall in love.

Plot: 9/10

Well, I must admit this was better than expected. The story is packed with various themes of romance, abuse, and racism, while also being well-developed and well-paced. It takes place over a period of about four or five months, but it doesn’t drag at all, instead hitting the important parts in a manner reminiscent of Harry Potter. Also, despite the premise, the story does not at all rely on sex scenes, for which I am very grateful. This book was written from the heart, and it shows.

Characters: 9/10

Lei: This girl has had a messed-up life. Losing her mother at a young age, being kidnapped and forced to become a Paper Girl (one of the Demon King’s personal courtesan), and becoming embroiled in a rebel plot to kill the King… it’s honestly a wonder she hasn’t cracked. I guess it’s true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Wren: Ironically described as catlike, Wren is the total knockout that Lei falls for (and before you get ticked that everyone in this book is really hot, the main characters are courtesans. It’s a given).

Blue: This girl is a witch. Mean girl extraordinaire. But, she’s also well-written and complicated. I still hate her, though.

The Bull King: Interestingly, the King is never named. This is rather clever, as naming something humanizes it, and this guy prides himself on not being human. Also, I do not want to think of this guy in any sort of positive light, he is manipulative, abusive, controlling, unhinged, and a rapist. All in all, really great villain.

Madame Himura: Oh, hello Umbridge. When did you become an eagle demon? Seriously, this lady is abusive mentally and physically. Her pride drives her to violence whenever it is injured, and she has a clear disdain and outright dislike for the Paper Girls she oversees.

General Yu: This was the guy who started the plot, so I feel like he deserves a mention. He’s a disgraced general trying to win back favor and rank by bringing Lei to serve as a Paper Girl. Apparently she has supernaturally beautiful and startling eyes.

Content: 7/10

At the beginning of the book, it warns you that the book contains scenes of “violence and sexual abuse.” I didn’t notice this until I was about a third of the way through, so I’m passing the message on here. In addition to that, there are a couple scenes of intimacy which, thankfully, are not described in great detail but in enough detail to make some uncomfortable. Also, while not described, there is a lot of nudity (I mean, they’re courtesans, so you get what you pay for). The swearing is minimal, though, and for the author having the guts to include the scenes described above, as well as the foresight to include hotlines for abuse, I’ll give this section a 7.

Mood: 10/10

As with a lot of YA novels, this book alternated between a few moods. In the early parts, whenever Lei spotted Wren, the narrative took on a familiar feeling of longing that anyone who has ever had a crush can relate to. There were also moments of terror, joy, apprehension, anticipation… honestly, I could go on and on. The point is, each part of the book felt perfect when it came to mood

Diversity: 9/10

Obviously, there are LGBTQ+ elements, but besides that the book has an East Asian-style setting. The characters in it seem to be of ethnicities equivalent to Vietnamese, Indian, Japanese, and Han Chinese, possibly with Mongolian, Tibetan, and Manchu mixed in.

Worldbuilding: 10/10

The setting of this book is in a very much East Asian world. It resonates with the feel of dynastic China, with small elements of Japan, India, and other regions mixed in. There is a long history of war and local power struggles hinted at in the book, along with complex politics and East Asian Game of Thrones political rivalries and battles between various clans, large ruling families that have dominated Ikhara, the empire where the story takes place, for centuries before the seven provinces were united by the first Bull King. There’s also cultural appropriation and forced assimilation, as well as a solid and simple magic system. To cap it all, the empire has only lasted for two centuries and is on the brink of falling apart, something that happened a LOT in Chinese history due to poor administration, powerful warlords, and the sheer size of the empire, all of which Ikhara has. As a history nerd, this pleases me greatly. It all fits! I’ve got no complaints.

Conclusion: 10/10

While a bit risqué, this book is amazingly well-written, with accurate history, magic, great characters, and a diversity that is always needed in literature. 10/10, would read again. Read this if you like romance, incredibly beautiful people, amazing martial arts, and Eastern culture. Don’t read this if you’re hyper-sensitive to sensuality or violence.