Megan G reviews Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Each year, the Demon King is presented with eight young women of the lowest caste — the Paper caste — who will serve as his concubines for a year. While some girls dream of being selected, it was never in Lei’s plans. Her family has already suffered enough at the hands of the Demon King. Despite her reluctance, however, she soon finds herself in the position of Paper Girl, ripped from her home and family, wondering how anybody could see what she is being forced to do as a privilege.

I was immediately impressed by Girls of Paper and Fire due to the inclusion of trigger warnings at the beginning of the book. The author herself warns readers that the book deals with issues of violence and sexual assault, allowing readers to decide before even starting to read if this is the book for them. I’m beyond thankful that these types of warnings are becoming more common, and seeing it at the beginning of this book made me feel sure that these topics would be handled well within the story. They were.

The world presented in this novel is incredibly original and clever. It is a perfect blend of fantasy and reality, feeling incredibly believable despite the fact that a large amount of the population of this world are literal demons. The way Ngan describes everything is incredibly vivid, too. I often felt as though I were watching a movie instead of reading a novel.

The characters are layered in the most wonderful ways. Although there are issues of internalized misogyny that play out throughout the story, they are dealt with genuinely, treating all parties as people who have value despite their flaws. Girls are not written off as merely jealous or petty — they are given reasons for the ways in which they act, as well as possibilities for redemption. It’s actually quite refreshing for a YA novel.

The protagonist, Lei, goes through an incredible amount of character development throughout the story. She’s extremely likable despite some frustrating qualities, and is very easy to root for. You want her to succeed, not simply because she’s the protagonist but because her worth shines through. She’s strong and courageous, but also weary and at times frightened. First and foremost she is human, making human choices and thinking human thoughts. Because of it, she sometimes does things that make you want to smack her, but don’t all young adult heroes do such things? Like with all the characters, it’s refreshing that she’s allowed to have flaws and make mistakes without immediately being labelled a failure or worthless by the narrative. She’s allowed to grow and learn, and it’s wonderful to experience.

I don’t want to say much about the love story because I feel it should be experienced as I did — blindly and with complete surprise. It’s not easy to see at the beginning who the love interest will be, and it was wonderful to read how it developed without knowing anything in advance. I promise, it’s worth the vagueness and mystery.

One small warning is that this is the first book in a trilogy, so of course the story is not completely finished. Still, I felt incredibly satisfied by the story told here, and am anxiously awaiting the release of the second book so that I can once again lose myself in this fantastical world and in Lei’s life. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Marthese reviews Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

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Scale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew is a novella based on Chinese mythology that takes place in modern Hong Kong. This was an interesting premise and although I found it somewhat different from the fantasy that I usually real, it came recommended by a friend, so I gave it a go.

The story follows Julianne Lau, a 24 year old Hong Kong native. She lives with her two aunts, Houyi and Chang’e who to be clear are married to each other not related! This story starts with Julianne meeting a viper, a creature that looks like a human but isn’t. The viper is draw by the divine aura around Julianne which was acquired with her living with goddesses. The viper, called Olivia or Xiaoqing tells Julianne who she meets a couple of times that she wants a meeting with Chang’e, her aunt. Grudges among divine creatures last very long and there are a lot of enemies or past enemies for such a short book.

Julianne has body image issues, self-esteem issues and had encounters with depression. However, she is trying to be better. Like her aunt Chang’e, she is kind and she tries to control her sense of wanting attention sometimes with consequences.

There are some interesting relationships in the story. First off, I want to mention that we see some of Julianne’s past and about to be past relationships with women. For being such a short recount, it’s very queer.

Chang’e and Houyi have a good relationship based on affection and trust and so Julianne takes them as role models for her love life. Houyi buys Chang’e candies dates even when Chang’e is abroad and she picked her up from the airport in a tuxedo. That’s the level of sweetness that their relationship has. Despite this, they do not spend that much time together as their divine jobs take over a lot of time. Their past as well is tangibly full of sorrow apart from love.

Interesting was to see Houyi’s relationship with Julianne. Although she is technically only an in-law, she seems to be the main ‘caretaker’ while Chang’e, with her kindness takes over soothing roles when needed.

The relationship, as abrupt and like staccato as it was, between Xiaoqing and Julianne was also interesting. Xiaoqing shows Julianne that demons are complex and tells Julianne her story, after which she says she wants Julianne for who she is. Julianne for her part doesn’t care for what her partner looks like and learns to not judge people by the myths that are on them.

‘Demons’ , in this novella, are not villanized instead they are shown to be flawed and wanting to survive but also very diverse and complex with a system of their own

The writing is very descriptive, sometimes like poetry but I felt that at times it was just stretching too much. There are some styles that I liked such as sentences with only one word to describe routines. At times, as there were two sets of names being used, it is very easy to get confused especially if you are not familiar with the myths involved. It also takes a while to make sense after the beginning of a new segment as there are time and special hops, without much explanation.

We see the briskness of Hong Kong. I think this novella captures the metropolitan feel with its description of people and business and billboards.

This story takes on elements from myths such as the gods of sun and moon and the white snake and queers them up. Apart from the queer spins and retellings, it is heavy laden with gender issues and thought. Needless to say, but I will just in case, that this story being based on myth inherits all the strange gore that myths tend to have, so beware!

To end, I thought it was interesting reading a queer retelling of Chinese mythology by a Thai author no less,  instead of British, Canadian or American. I think the style would need some time to get used to, but it’s worth to read it. It lulls between complexities of plot and gender and the easiness of long descriptions that relax you (like one of those relaxation classes).