Maggie reviews Girls of Storm and Shadow by Natasha Ngan

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I am always excited for queer fantasy, and I enjoyed the first book of the series – Girls of Paper and Fire – so I was quite excited to get to Girls of Storm and Shadow. Lei and Wren had been through so much in the first book, and I was excited to see how they’d come together in the aftermath. They had killed the King, and there was rebellion to shift power in the kingdom, and they were no longer concubines. There was a lot to build off, and a budding love story to watch. But Girls of Storm and Shadow had a very different tone from the first, not all of it an improvement, in my opinion. Although there was a lot of action, and it further revealed the extent of the rebellion against the King, it seemed to lack a lot of the urgency of the first book to me, although I’m still eager to see the final book.

The book picks up with Lei, Wren, and their band of escapees in the mountains, trying to gather up support for the rebellion. The book once again examines the trope of the pivotal figurehead of the rebellion, in that technically that is Lei, but she isn’t actually very helpful to them. The rumors of what happened in the palace have spread, making Lei into the Moonchosen, but outside of her title she has little power. She also can’t take care of herself in the mountains. Although she is the one that stabbed the King, she doesn’t actually know how to fight. Being from a common family, she has no useful political connections to bring to them. All of this forces Lei to play catch up, cramming weapons practice into their grueling trek, forcing herself to learn the survival skills the others know, and trying to glean the complicated politics of the rest of the realm. This is a fascinating twist on the usual “leveling up” montage the hero gets because the rebellion doesn’t actually seem to want her there all that much. On a personal level, the group likes her and is happy to teach her, but leadership seems to make no effort to include her into plans or, somewhat puzzlingly, change those plans to really capitalize on her presence. And the more Lei learns from being around rebellion leadership, the more she’s uncertain about what she’s signed on to do.

To my surprise after the smoldering intensity of the first book, Lei and Wren’s relationship quickly took a turn for the worse in the second book. Lei was still committed, but Wren distanced herself. She didn’t want to reveal their relationship to her father, and also didn’t appreciate Lei’s questions about her father’s intentions for the rebellion. And yet there’s also an ex that immediately pulls Wren’s attention once they come back into contact. Both of these storylines are not bad relationship storylines in general, necessarily, but they were not what I was expecting from the tone of the first book, and it left me disappointed in Wren.

There is also the typical second book of a dystopian trilogy “everything gets unbearably worse” happening, but it’s not just the rebellion’s prospects of winning that seem dim. As Lei tries to help them with their next moves, she realizes just how unprepared she was for the politics of the rebellion. She also learned how deep Wren is in those politics, and what she finds is not great. There are also some large discoveries that I don’t want to spoil, but that change things dramatically. I was prepared going into this book for things to get worse before they got better, but this book also seemed to take place over a relatively short period of time and yet get very little done. Up until the final act, it seemed they spent interminable amounts of times traveling during which there wasn’t as much action as I had come to expect from the first book.

In conclusion: this is very clearly the second book of a trilogy, and it took a very different tone from the first book. Wren and Lei’s relationship fell apart, the rebellion seems lackluster and barely better in ideals than the establishment, and a lot goes downhill at the end. But that’s pretty standard second book stuff, so I’ll reserve my judgement on the series as a whole until I see how the third book wraps it up. But this one was a little more difficult for me to get through than the first one.

Maggie reviews Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan

Content Warnings: Rape, kidnapping, physical violence

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan is a YA fantasy about Lei, a Paper Caste girl, who is forcefully taken from her family by the imperial guard in order to join the newest class of Paper Girls. Paper Girls are the most beautiful paper caste girls in the kingdom, chosen to serve the king as concubines for one year. Some of the girls are from the few influential paper caste families, offered to curry favor and bind their families closer to the power of the crown. Some of them are chosen from the country at large and either regard serving the king as an honor or believe the material benefits to themselves or their families are worth it. Lei, kept in line only through threats to her remaining family and already resentful of the imperial regime for previously abducting her mother, is caught between the rock of being forced to service the king when her mind and body revolt against the very idea and the hard place of the strict new realities of her life that she cannot escape.

Once in the palace, Lei struggles, not only with her lessons, but also with the company of the other girls. The noble girls not only have a head start on the knowledge and skills expected of a Paper Girl, but they’re not eager to include Lei in their social circles. They’re used to having maids and fancy clothes and performing courtly graces, and every time Lei struggles or makes a mistake, mockery and taunting is sure to follow. Some of the girls are also eager to be there, either from a desire to serve the king or for the status and benefits being Paper Girls will bring them and their families, motivations which Lei has trouble understanding. Lei becomes friendly with one of them, Aoki, but Lei constantly has to watch herself around her because Aoki is truly enamored of the idea of serving the king and won’t hear of Lei’s very real horror of the man. Being set adrift in a hostile environment would be tough enough, but Lei’s mental anguish at being used by the king is chilling. Paper Girls don’t have the ability to refuse to become Paper Girls, or to refuse a summons by the king when they’re in the Palace, so they don’t have the ability to truly consent, and Lei’s horror at her lack of agency causes her to panic and react in unpredictable ways. CONTENT WARNINGS: While this book does not depict the physical act of rape in lurid detail, it does occur and neither does it draw a curtain at the door to the king’s quarters. There’s physical violence, mental and physical intimidation, and general bad times along those lines.

Lei’s lack of agency is emblematic of the Paper Caste as a whole’s lack of agency. Despite the existence of a few high-status families at Court, as evidenced by some of the other Paper girls, most of the Paper caste is oppressed and taken advantage of by the Moon and Steel castes. What I really enjoyed about this novel besides the world-building was that Lei is actually a late addition to the plot to overthrow the King leading such a cruel system and make a better kingdom. They weren’t waiting for a prophecy or a chosen one, Lei’s violent yet inept rejection of her own fate literally bumbles into a well-laid and intricate conspiracy that is already in place and wasn’t looking for any other help. In fact, they would rather she just keep her head down and not mess them up, because she doesn’t have the training for this, which of course, Lei does not do. It’s an interesting change from the common Chosen One formula.

Also interesting is Wren, a fellow Paper Girl. Lei is fascinated by Wren, who is withdrawn but kind, unlike the other wealthy Paper Girls. Wren is a part of the resistance, trained from childhood and planted among the Paper Girls to gain access to the King. Wren also has to let herself be used, and she empathizes with Lei’s reactions. She alone among the resistance thinks that Lei should be included and possibly help them. Along the way, their relationship becomes physical as well as emotional, as they bond over the pressure cooker of their environment.

Girls of Paper and Fire is a great beginning to a series. The world-building is intricate and interesting, and it turns the Chosen One as Rebellion Figurehead trope on its head. Although there is lots of serious content, it handles it well, and the physical relationship between Wren and Lei mirrors the intense emotional pressures they both face. If you like fantasy YA series, you could do worse than look here.

Maggie reviews Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

Cinderella is Dead by Kalynn Bayron

I was very excited to get ahold of this ebook, because I’ve been listening to a lot of YA audiobooks lately while doing other things, and so I’ve gotten on a fantasy YA kick. It’s great to read some exciting new releases and promote new books during a time when we all desperately need good distractions. Cinderella is Dead is not a re-telling of Cinderella, which is a trope that I do love but that I’m getting a tad bit weary of. Rather, it’s something I found even more exciting: imagining the consequences of a fairy tale after the tale, not just for the characters themselves, but generations down the line. Cinderella is Dead is perfect for those who want something more from the original Cinderella story.

The legend of Cinderella isn’t just a tale to the citizens of Lille. Rather, Cinderella was a real woman, and her legacy has grown and has been codified into the very law of the land. Every girl in the city must not only know the story by heart, but they are all commanded to dress up and attend a ball at the palace, just like Cinderella did. But rather than a romantic tradition, the events have been corrupted and used to control the citizenry by the corrupt monarchy. People pray to the spirit of Cinderella, not to wish for happiness, but to hope their daughters won’t be disappeared by the palace guard. Girls hope to find a suitor at the ball–but only because if they don’t they risk disappearing or being forced into menial labor. And they don’t get a choice about what man chooses them, or how he treats them after they get married. It’s truly a grim but intriguing imagining of how a beloved fairy tale could play out and be corrupted. CONTENT WARNINGS: this story deals with domestic violence, abuse, homophobia, human trafficking, and mentions of rape. The culture of Lille is dark, and its citizens who are not straight men go through a lot, which may seem like a lot in a book aimed at young adults, but what I find important is that our protagonists stand up to it, and meet and encourage other people to not accept these things as normal.

Enter Sophia, who harbors a forbidden love for her friend Erin, and a deep terror at being forced into a marriage where she will have no rights or say in her own life. Sophia refuses to accept the reality of Lille and wants to try to run away with Erin before the night of their own Ball when they’ll be trapped, but Erin can’t imagine taking such a risk and wants to do what is necessary to remain safe. The night of the Ball, Sophia is forced to flee by herself, and then she meets Constance, the last descendant of Cinderella’s Stepsisters. Confronted with new information about the true story of the Cinderella legend, and growing new feelings for a girl who is willing to fight by her side, Sophia has to decide how far she’s willing to go to create a better life for everyone in Lille.

It was really interesting to see not just the long-term effects of a fairy tale, but characters interacting with true events vs fictionalized versions. Over and over Sophia has to confront how the history she took as true but corrupted was actually propaganda from the start. And this book really took all the instantly recognizable elements of Cinderella–a blonde and beautiful Cinderella, glass slippers, the fairy godmother–and flipped them around while remaining firmly rooted in the original fairy tale.  The cover proclaims that Cinderella is Dead while Sophia stares out at us, Black, curly-haired, wearing the iconic blue Cinderella gown, but unabashedly, from page one, not interested in marrying a prince, and the story promptly drags us away from magicked pumpkins and mice and into witches, necromancy, and anti-royalist rebellion. In Lille, Cinderella was real, and her history was complicated, but her legacy is now Black, queer, and invested in taking down a tainted, misogynist monarchy.

I really enjoyed this book. It was a fun read, and the world-building and action picked up quickly. I really liked the slow peel-back of the Cinderella story, combined with how straightforward and brave Sophia and Constance were. [spoiler, highlight to read] I also really loved that Sophia had a first love, but then slowly realized she was more compatible with Constance. [end spoilers] The twists and turns managed to surprise me and keep me involved. It’s just a really good read, and we need more like it on the shelves, especially for young readers today.

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.