Unfortunately a promising start and an unexpected romance were let down by a disappointing ending. It’s not bad, in fact the writing and world building are very good, it’s just not as special as it so easily could have been.
Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honor they could hope for…and the most cruel.
But this year, there’s a ninth girl. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.
In this lush fantasy, 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.
TW: violence and sexual abuse.
I have to confess despite being very excited to receive a copy of Girls of Paper and Fire from NetGalley I put off reading this. I’ve been a little down on the genre and had a feeling this would be the typical YA fantasy with all of the usual tropes. Poor girl plucked from obscurity and sent to live in the palace of an evil dictator who discovers she has a special ability or skill she can use to save the world (all while falling in love with her soul mate). But, while it does wander into this kind of standard pattern there is something a little bit different about it and I found the start in particular intriguing. The prologue immediately drew me into the story and there were some early hints that this could head in an unexpected direction.
I hadn’t read much about the story, and it’s safe to say what I had read I’d forgotten, so I had no idea why there was so much buzz around this book. It didn’t take long however to figure out that the something special was the romance. It’s pretty obvious from the blurb that main character falls in love with someone she shouldn’t but who she falls in love with was completely unexpected and for me was the highlight of the story.
As I mentioned, the story is kind of the norm. Young girl is seized in a raid in her village by soldiers and carted off to be a paper girl, essentially a sex slave for the king (yep sexual assault trigger warning). Usually there are only 8 paper girls each year (it’s an annual tradition) but this year they make an exception for Lei, who is special due to her golden eyes. Along with the other girls she has to learn how to “please” the king, whether she wants to or not to keep her family safe. Unfortunately the king really is a tyrant and there’s trouble in the kingdom so Lei may end up in the middle of a rebellion.
It’s a little bit slow at times but I found there was more or less enough to hold my attention. I can’t say Lei is a new favourite character, she’s a little frustrating but other than that I didn’t have any particularly strong feelings about her either way. With the exception of Wren, there’s not really a lot to say about the other characters either. I thought they were a little underdeveloped and occasionally wandered into cliched. There’s the mean rich girl, the naive and innocent best friend and the evil villain. It’s all a little bit predictable, all that is with the exception of Wren who absolutely fascinated me. She sets herself apart from the other girls and gives very little away. It’s difficult to tell whether she’ll be a friend, enemy or something else entirely and I loved that uncertainty.
I also really liked the world building and the class system the author created and thought her descriptions of both place and people were incredibly vivid. I loved the idea of this huge big palace with very distinct districts within it all protected by magic. I would however have liked to see more of this magic and the shamans who can wield it. For a fantasy it’s pretty light on this and there’s very little on the magic system despite it being important in the world… which takes me on to my final point, that ending.
This book feels like a slow build to an epic conclusion. There are lots of hints and premonitions that something incredible is going to happen and that Lei will be central to it but while there is a big finish it fell a little bit short of expectations. It’s probably my own fault for building it up and imagining what it could be that makes Lei so special but it was all a bit of a let down. It is the first book in a trilogy so no doubt the really epic stuff and the big reveals are being saved for later books but it would have been good to get something to tide us over.
Overall therefore a promising start but not as spectacular as I hoped it would be.
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing me with an ARC. All views are my own.