Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan

43558747Me and YA fantasy this year really don’t get along.

In terms of how it compares to the first book, Girls of Storm and Shadow is probably the worst sequel I’ve ever read.
After all, how can a series in which I love the two main characters end up being actively unenjoyable? Somehow, this one managed, and without ever making me change my feelings about Lei and Wren – which is a remarkable accomplishment, one I hope to never see again.

The best word I can find to describe what went wrong with most of this book is “sloppy“. A lot of good ideas, but to say that the execution left something to be desired would be an understatement, and this was true right from the beginning. I read an ARC, and I hope some of these don’t make it to the final copy, but one of the first things that stood out to me about Girls of Storm and Shadow was the jarringly modern language – characters using words like “fanmail”, or “B.O.” to mean body odor, or saying “stealth mode activated” – out of nowhere, in what is very much a high fantasy setting. There are also some puns that, to work, would require the characters to be speaking English, which clashed with everything I know about the worldbuilding. Also, since we’re talking about the puns: I didn’t mind that they were purposefully terrible, but the attempt at funny banter involving Bo, Nitta and Merrin was so cringey I just wanted them all to disappear. There really isn’t a character more annoying than the unfunny comic relief.

The jarring parts didn’t stop there; no, soon I started to notice how awkward the dialogue was at times – always at the same very specific times. While every character has their own way to speak and it’s usually easy to understand who is saying what without needing a dialogue tag, most of the characters seemed to have a thing for launching themselves into monologues about what bravery is and the costs of fighting back. In those monologues, they all spoke the exact same way. It was as if these parts were made to work out of context instead of in context, as if they were meant to be quoted and shared instead of actually belonging in the text. While I agreed with what the book said about resistance and what it means to be brave, abandoning all subtlety to deliver important lessons to the reader is talking down to the reader.

This is also a journey book.
I’m always hesitant with sequels of books I loved, because in a trilogy, the second book often turns into a journey book. If the first book wasn’t one already, the second often fails. One of the things I loved the most about Girls of Paper and Fire was the atmosphere, at the same time dazzling and claustrophobic, and the way the f/f romance was framed as a light in the darkness for Lei. All of this is lost in the second book; we go from a developed, vivid setting that feels real to speeding through a series of locations we’re told relatively little about, and everything feels so flat and fake. We go from a romance that was a source of strength for the characters to something that is mostly yet one more obstacle for them.

I appreciated how this book portrayed the way even a loving relationship can become really strained when two people are uprooted from the circumstances in which the relationship began and thrown into a very different but still ugly situation. Lei is suffering because she feels out of place (on top of everything we saw in the first book); Wren has been raised by a family that mostly saw her as means to an end, and at times finds herself missing some parts of palace life, and this horrifies her. I wasn’t annoyed by the way the main characters found communicating difficult – no, I think the miscommunication was realistic and necessary. These are traumatized 17-year-olds and Lei is clearly displaying PTSD symptoms. Of course they’re struggling, and that impacts their relationship. This book doesn’t shy away from any of that, and that’s probably what I liked the most about it.

What really annoyed me was that this book thought it was necessary to include [spoilery thing] of all things, out of nowhere, 70% in. Now, I can have fun with this sort of thing in lighter reads in which I’m just there for the drama. This is very much not that kind of book, and I have no idea why this was done. To add conflict? As if there wasn’t enough. That sort of thing only annoys your reader, and it’s not like I needed that, because believe me, after spending 300 pages with Bo I was already annoyed.

Click here to see what the spoiler-y thing is, because I wish I had known:

Unnecessary drama involving an ex-girlfriend that is suddenly introduced.

I also felt like nothing happened, even though a lot of things clearly happened, since the characters were constantly on the run or trying to convince people to ally with them. The problem is, the situation felt very stagnant, because the characters’ goals were always the same, their relationship with the world and each other were always the same, the villains’ goals were always the same – at least for the first three quarters of the book.
I quit 75% of the way through, because I realized that I wasn’t actually liking anything of what I was reading anymore.

My rating: ★★

Book review · Fantasy · Young adult

Review: Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

41450081I’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