Girls of Paper and Fire, Natasha Ngan (Jimmy Patterson Presents 978-0316561365, $18.99, 400pp, hc) November 2018.
In terms of worldbuilding, Natasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire works a lot better for me. Overall, it just purely works: part of that might be the sheer weight of feeling that Ngan packs into this, her third novel and fantasy debut. (And what an accomplished, explosive novel it is.)
Lei is the daughter of a village herb-shop owner, a long way from the capital and high politics. Their land is divided into three castes: the human Paper caste, the part-demon Steel caste, who have certain animal attributes as a result of their demon blood, and the ruling mostly-demon Moon caste. Once, a long time ago, there was respect and cooperation between the castes, but since the first Demon King conquered the land, the Paper caste has only become more downtrodden and despised, for the other castes, especially the Moon caste, generally follow the Demon King’s example in seeing the Paper caste as things to be used and discarded. There are only a handful of aristocratic families from the Paper caste, and even their positions are precarious.
Lei doesn’t know much about politics at the beginning of the novel. She hates and resents the Demon King’s soldiers for the raid that took her mother from her seven years before, but otherwise political things don’t impinge much on her day-to-day life. That changes, however, when she’s ripped away from her family to become one of the Demon King’s Paper Girls – concubines whose lives are strictly regulated, who serve the Demon King personally for a year before being disposed of elsewhere according to his will. Lei violently despises the idea of serving in the Demon King’s bed, but her life and the lives of her family are at stake. For a while – before the Demon King calls on her to serve him – palace life doesn’t seem that bad. Some of the other Paper Girls become friends, and for one – the cool, unapproachable Wren, only daughter of a noble Paper family – she begins to develop a dangerous, impossible attraction.
Dangerous, because the Demon King is a jealous master. Impossible, because if they’re caught acknowledging their attraction (for, as it turns out, it’s entirely mutual) or acting on it in any way, they’re almost certain to be executed – and possibly their families with them. Their budding relationship is doubly dangerous because Wren is keeping secrets: she’s the last survivor of a warrior lineage, adopted in secret into a noble family, and at the heart of a plan to assassinate the Demon King and bring down his oppressive rule. Wren’s attempts to protect Lei from this secret threaten to become a wedge between them, but when Lei uncovers the truth, she demands entrée to the plot, both because she wants to make sure Wren survives and because she’s really invested in the Demon King’s death.
When Wren is dispatched home to attend to matters arising from her mother’s death (in a fluke of unlucky timing, just at the moment when everything aligned to make the Demon King’s assassination more practical), Lei is pressed into service as a last-hope assassin. Her role in the Demon King’s assassination becomes more personally vital to her when she realises that her relationship with Wren has been betrayed to him – and the Demon King is only waiting for the most painful moment at which to have her killed.
Ngan’s prose, here rendering Lei’s first-person present-tense narrative with deft turns of phrase, is crisp and precise. Her worldbuilding is a fascinating combination of historical overtones and the batshit fantastical (the animal-form demons of the different castes, bird or wolf or bull or cat and so on, are particularly interesting), and the influence of Asia, especially China, is visibly strong in the creation of this world. (The depiction of the Xia warriors from whom Wren claims descent, brings to mind the wǔxiá genre of film and literature – hell, the “xia” is right there in the name, evoking the vigilante heroism on which wǔxiá stories base so much of their action.)
Ngan evokes the claustrophobia of a constrained life as a palace concubine – within walls, surrounded by rules, living at someone else’s whim – very effectively without resorting to cliché or the kind of tone more reminiscent of a boarding-school story. Violence, sexual and otherwise, looms at the centre of the story. Ngan doesn’t shy away from it, or let the reader forget it, but she doesn’t dwell on it either. Instead, she dwells on women’s agency, on Lei’s determination and Wren’s strength, on the choices Lei makes and the risks they both run to grasp at happiness, freedom, and some kind of justice. This is a vital and energetic novel, an accomplished fantasy debut that mounts with increasing tension towards an explosive conclusion. I enjoyed it tremendously, although I expected Lei’s self-destructive opposition to engaging in coerced sex work to have more consequences earlier.
Girls of Paper and Fire is an entire story in itself, but it’s also the first book in a longer series. I’m seriously looking forward to seeing what Ngan does next.
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is out now from Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, her Patreon, or Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
This review and more like it in the November 2018 issue of Locus.
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