Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, published by Hodder and Stoughton on 6th November 2018
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.
I went into this book not knowing what to expect at all. I loved Natasha Ngan's previous book 'The Elites', so that was my main reason for picking this one up. I was absolutely blown away by it. It was a sensational read that I couldn't be prised away from. It was original, unique, enchanting and one of the best books that I've read this year.
It's described as having similarities to 'Memoirs of a Geisha' which is a book that I love. I can see why comparisons have been drawn, as both stories focus on the lives of concubines. However, 'Girls of Paper and Fire' veers away from historical fiction and instead goes down the path of being an exquisite fantasy. It's beautifully written and was such a joy to read that I now want to press a copy into the hands of everyone I know.
The main character Lei is a member of the Paper caste. At the beginning of the story, she is taken to the Demon King to become one of his concubines, along with eight other girls. Along with Paper, there is also Steel and Moon. These two castes are different because Steel is a mixture of human and demon with animal characteristics and Moon is demon animals. Each are afforded differing statuses in the Kingdom with Paper being considered the lowliest. It took a while to get used to people being half-animal but after a while, I adjusted to this and found the unusual mixture of characters fascinating.
Lei was a wonderful character who is devoted to her family and believes that she is protecting them by being in the King's possession. She bonds with the other girls and they almost become a second family of sorts. However, although they are all in the same situation, they react differently to their roles and some see it almost as a rivalry. I enjoyed getting to know all of the girls and seeing how Lei's relationship with them evolves throughout the course of the book. Ngan also does a brilliant job of creating a female romance which I truly believed in. It develops gradually and is wonderfully real in its depiction of a love which burns slowly but brightly.
There are some truly shocking moments in the book and it does touch on powerful themes, such as female oppression, rape and assault. However, these are sensitively written about and aren't just there to be sensationalist. It's a brutal world but one in which true love can still flourish.
Definitely a five star read and one for which I will be eagerly awaiting the follow-up.