Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A lot has already been said about this very hyped YA fantasy novel so I will try and make this short. Girls of Paper and Fire has some very familiar tropes like: girl is taken away to be a slave, she fights back, she is unique and special, she is a heroine in the end. Now, if this was to be a teens first foray into YA fantasy I could see it becoming their all time favourite. It’s not perfect, but it’s more than good enough to pull in a fan base. I really disliked the ending but otherwise it's not an awful read. There are moments of frustration regarding the 'rules' of this world but they generally iron themselves out, and it's obvious Natasha Ngan is holding back some cultural or magical details of this world on purpose.
The YA Fantasy Tropes
So here's the thing... when we read romance books we don't complain about the romance right? Because we know what we are getting into. So I see no reason why I should have expected anything different from Ngan's series opening book Girls of Paper and Fire, than the YA fantasy tropes I received. Our lead gal is a teen, stolen from her home, trained to do awful things, and of course she's a very special snowflake. This is probably the part I disliked the most (besides the end) is that she was so special over everyone else. I'd love to see someone write a book from the perspective of the non-heroine. Instead maybe from the sidekick's point of view, or the middle of the road girl in the group (the one that isn't awful but isn't amazing). It would be interesting to see if this type of a story could stand-up if not from the heroine's point of view. But I digress...
I really liked many of the characters that Ngan introduces us to; with one exception, the King. Now it's important to note that he is a 'bad guy'. But that's not why I dislike him. Instead I dislike his character as he is all over the place. Sometimes he seems nice, other times he seems angry, other times he's typical arrogant royalty. There didn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to it. I suspect Ngan was trying to make us feel a little bit sorry for the king, or find some part of ourselves in him; but instead it just comes off as confusing and disconnected.
That said, our love interest is kick-ass in Girls of Paper and Fire. And I mean kick-ass. Not only is she strong, from a wealthy family, there with a purpose and shockingly beautiful; but she's also intelligent and helps keep our heroine in-line. I'd love to read the story from her perspective.
In case it wasn't clear in the paragraph above, yes the love interest of our lead gal is another gal. This is a perfectly logical choice by Ngan and I love how she clearly understood the dynamics that would happen between a number of women all trapped in a similar situation. They'd argue and be competitive; but also be compassionate and care for one another. It makes sense, that with such little contact from the outside world, these women would fall in love with one another. Now I don't mean to diminish the choice of Ngan to make her heroine gay at all. Just to say that from a psychological standpoint it's a natural progression (gay or not) that our women would become close. Obviously not all of them begin romantic relationships and so that has our lead gal and her partner standing out amongst the crowd of girls.
The flow and transition of the love interest, plus the smart understanding of women's feelings, makes this the best part of the book. Yes, believe it or not the romance in this is actually one of my favourite parts!
Alright, yes I know this is a part of a series. And yes I know to expect a cliffhanger ending. BUT, did it have to be the way it is written? No, no it did not.
I liked some aspects of the ending as they felt like realistic problems that would emerge in a natural way. And yet, the final moment is so cliche and convenient it made me throw the book down (okay well my e-reader, but you get the idea). I would have much preferred the convenience of a character showing up at the exact right second be removed and have some sort of (perhaps slightly improbable) thing happen that appears to be a bit of luck.
Obviously I don't want to give anything away; but I do warn you that if you are hoping for a complex ending, like the betrayal, alliances and politics throughout this book, you will be disappointed.
This is a pretty darn good book. It's focus on rape, physical abuse, slavery and lack of control is just the right amount in my opinion. There's enough there to understand what is happening, without getting into the nitty gritty details (that really no one wants to read) that may turn a reader off. I believe Ngan found a good balance between awful events that give motivation and graphic descriptions we don't want or need to read, and sweet romantic ones.
Certainly anyone who hasn't read the last few years of YA fantasy books would really like this. Others might compare certain aspects to recent stories or feel like there is little truly original here. Ngan gives us a complex (often times a bit too complicated) and interesting world with an Asian-inspired culture, medieval-style setting and royalty driven politics in Girls of Paper and Fire; what more can we expect from a YA writer? If you're a fan of YA fantasy this is a must read. Just remember, you're getting exactly what you asked for by picking this genre, so don't criticize every moment because you can't separate one novel/series from the next.
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