Girls of Paper and Fire #2: Girls of Storm and Shadow – Natasha Ngan

Wren and I might not be Paper Girls anymore, but we are still capable of creating fire. And now we have a whole world to set ablaze.

It’s been a couple of weeks since Lei and Wren faced off against the Demon King. Now fugitives, they are regrouping and strategising for the upcoming war, part of a disparate group consisting of both familiar and new faces. New alliances will be formed and trust will be broken as sides are chosen.

Hindered by secrets, distrust and the enormity of the task before her but determined to prevail, Lei begins training with Shifu Caen. Wren and Hiro, a shaman boy, are working together to protect the group with magic. Bo and Nitta, leopard demon siblings, add some levity to their dire situation. Bo in particular enjoys tormenting Merrin, an owl-form demon.

I know that sometimes the combination least expected can forge the strongest bonds.

I often have trouble with sequels and it took a while for me to get into this book, which surprised me given how much I loved Girls of Paper and Fire. I think part of my problem was the time initially spent travelling. I’m a bit of an ‘are we there yet?’ reader, anxious to get to the next location so I can meet new characters and enjoy the action. I only started to get into the story once the group made it to the White Wing Clan.

There are still some characters I love and those I breathed a sigh of relief over when I learned they had survived the events of the first book. Similarly, characters I loved to hate in the first book haven’t endeared themselves to me yet. At least one person I adored in the first book disappointed me greatly with their actions in this one, so much so that I’m not entirely sure who I want to win the war at this point. I experienced the same disconnect I felt in the first book between what I thought I should be feeling and what I actually felt when events impacted characters I liked, and I’m still not sure why.

Most of the story is told from Lei’s perspective, although there’s also a chapter each focusing on Naja, Aoki, Kenzo and Mistress Azami. The trauma impacts relating to what the Paper Girls were subjected to in the first book are explored in this one. Although it’s not mentioned by name it was clear to me that these experiences have resulted in PTSD, as evidence by nightmares, flashbacks, startle responses and the coping mechanisms used to manage their distress.

Not even death could take away the scars he left upon me, imprinted deep, the way history carves its marks into the very bedrock of a kingdom, forever to shape and influence its future.

The impacts of this trauma felt authentic to me and I particularly appreciated that they were present throughout the book. There is no magical recovery and the past comes back to haunt them at inconvenient and unexpected times, just like it does when it happens off the page. I loved that the characters still managed to accomplish some extraordinary feats despite their pain, which both highlighted their resilience and gave me hope. There is life after trauma but it doesn’t look the same as it did pre-trauma.

This is a language I understand. A language of pain and horror that I, too, have learned. That too many girls have had to learn.

I have a bunch of unanswered questions that I really hope will be answered in Girls of Fate and Fury. Some of my questions are spoilery so I won’t mention those but I still need to know what the deal is with Lei’s eyes and more about shamans. At this point it looks like there are two main sides in the war to come but I’m hoping against hope that a third side will emerge as I’m not sure I’ll be entirely satisfied if either of the two I currently know about succeed. The bloodshed is revealing aspects of certain characters that make it harder to like them. I’m not sure who is going to be able to live with the person they have to become in order to survive.

“It’s the fact that it isn’t easy, that we have to constantly work and work at it, make ourselves believe in our own strength even when it feels like we’re worth nothing, have nothing, can do nothing … that’s power. That’s resilience” …

“There is nothing stronger than people who endure the worst hardships in the world, and still raise their fists at the start of a new day to fight all over again.”

Content warnings include death by suicide (other readers may disagree with me and it’s called sacrifice in the book but ultimately I still read it as suicide), self harm, trauma impacts related to sexual assault and violence.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

In this mesmerizing sequel to the New York Times bestselling Girls of Paper and Fire, Lei and Wren have escaped their oppressive lives in the Hidden Palace, but soon learn that freedom comes with a terrible cost.

Lei, the naive country girl who became a royal courtesan, is now known as the Moonchosen, the commoner who managed to do what no one else could. But slaying the cruel Demon King wasn’t the end of the plan – it’s just the beginning. Now Lei and her warrior love Wren must travel the kingdom to gain support from the far-flung rebel clans. The journey is made even more treacherous thanks to a heavy bounty on Lei’s head, as well as insidious doubts that threaten to tear Lei and Wren apart from within.

Meanwhile, an evil plot to eliminate the rebel uprising is taking shape, fueled by dark magic and vengeance. Will Lei succeed in her quest to overthrow the monarchy and protect her love for Wren, or will she fall victim to the sinister magic that seeks to destroy her?

Girls of Paper and Fire – Natasha Ngan

READ. THIS. BOOK. PLEASE.

I have so many library books at the moment that I’ve been desperate to read for so long and of course too many were due at the same time. I almost sent this book back unread and I’m so glad I didn’t! It turns out it’s one of my favourite reads of the year!

“When the world denies you choices, you make your own.”

Lei’s nightmares are haunted by the raid on her village seven years ago that saw her mother ripped from her life. This time the soldiers have come for Lei, a Paper caste girl with golden eyes. She is to undergo training as one of the Demon King’s Paper Girls, which is supposed to be an honour yet feels anything but.

I think of the Paper Girls who came before me. The dreams of theirs that might have died within these very walls.

The extravagance of palace life is unlike anything Lei has ever experienced with her loving family, who lead humble lives running a herb shop in their remote village. In the palace she is surrounded by exquisite gardens and is dressed by her own personal maid in stunning clothes with magic weaved through them! 😍 The glamour is only on the surface though, as Paper Girls are essentially the Demon King’s concubines, and this life feels like a prison to Lei.

There’s so much I loved about this book, from the gorgeous descriptions of the different castes of Ikhar and their history and spirituality to the strength of the women who inhabit it. There’s action, betrayal, loyalty, friendship, a romance that didn’t make me want to vomit and an underlying hope despite brutality.

“They can take and steal and break all they want, but there is one thing they have no control over. Our emotions,” she says at my nonplussed look. “Our feelings. Our thoughts. None of them will ever be able to control the way we feel. Our minds and hearts are our own. That is our power, Nine. Never forget it.”

I absolutely adore the cover image and Jeff Miller’s jacket design is simply breathtaking! I especially loved the Birth-blessing pendant on the front of the hardcover book.

I loved learning about the world our characters inhabit and I became immersed in Ikhara. I believed in this world and yearned to learn more about its history, its magic, its spiritual beliefs and its customs. I don’t think Ikhara would have come alive for me if not for the gorgeous descriptions that made me want to sigh with the satisfaction they gave me. I highlighted so many sentences that made me want to follow Natasha Ngan around and have her describe to me whatever she sees. Two of my favourites were about time and winter:

But time has a way of folding itself, like a map, distances and journeys and hours and minutes tucked neatly away to leave just the realness of the before and the now, as close as hands pressed on either side of a rice-paper door.

Colors drain from the gardens like calligraphy paints being washed away.

Wren was the standout character for me but I was surprised to discover that I also had a soft spot for acerbic Blue, despite and maybe because of all of the reasons that I probably should have loved to hate her. Lill was a sweetheart but I didn’t get much of a sense of her personality. Similarly the twins didn’t appear to have distinct personalities and unfortunately they became interchangeable for me. There were also a few characters that didn’t have a great deal of page time but I wanted to know more, who I felt more of a connection with than most of the Paper Girls: Zelle, Kenzo and Merrin.

I don’t want an easy life. I want a meaningful one.

I want so much to give this book 5 stars for the world the author transported me to alone but there’s something that’s niggling at me. This may be a problem with me, not the book, but sometimes I felt a disconnect between what I thought I should be feeling and what I was actually feeling. Without getting too spoilery, events would happen that would affect one or more of the Paper Girls and I’d think I should be crying, full of rage, joy, something … but wasn’t. I was always interested in knowing what was going to happen next but my emotions didn’t fire up. I was more upset by Lei’s dog getting skewered than anything that happened to the girls. I’m hoping a reread will clear this up for me.

What I Need Included in the Sequel/s

More Shamans – I loved the information about the shamans in this book but need more! I need to know more about their history, all of the cool stuff they can do, how they’re trained, and I need to get to know one personally.

Lei’s Eyes – There’s more than meets the eye here (sorry, I had to! 👀). I need their backstory!

More Mythology – There’s no such thing as too much mythology as far as I’m concerned. An entire history book about Ikhara? Sign me up!

Also, I need the next book in the series sometime soon. Tomorrow is good for me. 😜

We might be Paper Girls, easily torn and written upon. The very title we’re given suggests that we are blank, waiting to be filled. But what the Demon King and his court do not understand is that paper is flammable.

And there is a fire catching among us.

Content warnings include sexual assault and graphic violence.

P.S. I tried to buy a signed copy of this book from Barnes & Noble but they can’t ship it to Australia! I’m sure I’ll get over this at some point but not for a while. 😢

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Once Upon a Blurb

Each year, eight beautiful girls are chosen as Paper Girls to serve the king. It’s the highest honour they could hope for … and the most demeaning. This year, there’s a ninth. And instead of paper, she’s made of fire.

In this richly developed fantasy, Lei is a member of the Paper caste, the lowest and most persecuted class of people in Ikhara. She lives in a remote village with her father, where the decade-old trauma of watching her mother snatched by royal guards for an unknown fate still haunts her. Now, the guards are back and this time it’s Lei they’re after – the girl with the golden eyes whose rumoured beauty has piqued the king’s interest.

Over weeks of training in the opulent but oppressive palace, Lei and eight other girls learns the skills and charm that befit a king’s consort. There, she does the unthinkable – she falls in love. Her forbidden romance becomes enmeshed with an explosive plot that threatens her world’s entire way of life. Lei, still the wide-eyed country girl at heart, must decide how far she’s willing to go for justice and revenge.