I’m so glad this book, an f/f book about an Asian girl who is a survivor of sexual abuse, is a NYT bestseller.
Girls of Paper and Fire is a beautiful, necessary book. It’s also very dark by YA fantasy standards. It’s worth reading, but I think one should keep in mind that it contains sexual assault, animal violence/death of a pet, death of a parent, and outing.
Girls of Paper and Fire follows Lei, a queer girl living in a fantasy world inspired by Malaysia, which is ruled by a demon king who takes eight human concubines every year. Lei is forced to become one of those concubines, a “Paper Girl”, against her will.
I usually don’t like books in which there’s a lot of violence against women, because in fantasy it’s often used as a plot device. Not here. Girls of Paper and Fire is a book about what it’s like to be victim of sexual violence, specifically as a queer teenager of color. A story about finding strength again when so much has been taken from you against your will. There are so many important messages in here.
This book is a really multilayered portrayal of the ways women react to sexual abuse. The main character is a girl who never stops fighting back, but I also found really interesting reading about the other Paper Girls’ reactions. There are girls who try to cope by convincing themselves they enjoyed what happened – it’s especially heartbreaking the story of Aoki, the youngest of the Paper Girls, who is basically being groomed – and there are girls who, since they feel like all the power has been taken from them, turn against the other girls and try to hurt them with the very few means they have.
Girls of Paper and Fire is the kind of book that gets that victims aren’t perfect, that they can also be bad people, and them being bad doesn’t make them any less of a victim. People often mistake this kind of portrayal of victims for meaningless “girl hate”, but that’s the way reality is. Women often side with their oppressors. Women often turn against women who are less privileged than them when they’re hurt – in this case, it’s a woman of color outing two queer girls of color, but it could be white women turning against women of color or women bullying women they perceive as different because they’re mentally ill – and let’s be honest, this is so much more than just “girl hate”.
And even if this is a book about sexual assault, it’s sex-positive, portrays courtesans in a way that is more layered than just “they’re being assaulted” with the character of Zelle, and says some things about attraction that are really important. I think reading that first scene in which Zelle and Lei meet would have helped me a lot a few years ago.
Girls of Paper and Fire shows so many things I needed to see when I was in high school. Its portrayal of what it’s like to navigate women’s spaces as a queer woman, the way Lei learns how attraction feels like – all of this. I’m not sure I would have been able to read this book at the time, however. Reading this often felt like trying to eat chestnuts with the burr, which is one of the things I’m not sure how I feel about – the people who need this book, are they going to be able to read it?
One of the main reasons this book was hard to read for me was that it brought to the surface a lot of memories. It even reminded me of my years at an Italian Catholic school as an atheist, and it made me understand just how much forced penance affected me. If you’ve ever been forced to do things that made you feel violated or humilated, this book will remind you of that, so be careful.
And yet, I was able to finish this book. That’s because – unlike many other fantasy novels, especially dark adult ones – this book understands the point of balance. You know something awful is going to happen, but not all the scenes are full of despair, there are even some fun ones. It also takes place in a beautiful palace, and the descriptions almost make you want to be there with the characters, when you very much don’t. This world is so colorful and magical and vibrant, you can almost see it (and taste the food. I love food descriptions).
I loved all the characters. Lei is just an ordinary girl, without any special powers or fighting skills, and I’m amazed by her strength. I’m going to say it again, teen girls need this book. The side characters are complex and flawed, and Wren is a wonderful love interest. I loved seeing this sweet f/f romance blossom in such an awful place.
Some small things I didn’t love: I struggled to get into the story at the beginning, the plot is somewhat predictable, but it’s really not formulaic by YA fantasy standards. I also often couldn’t visualize how the demons looked like.
My rating: ★★★★¾