Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan (Girls of Paper and Fire, #1)
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 rumored 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.
TITLE: Girls of Paper and Fire
AUTHOR: Natasha Ngan
PUBLISHER: Hodder & Stoughton
LENGTH: 401 pages
AGE: Young Adult
Queer Rep Summary: Lesbian/Sapphic Main Character(s), Gay/Achillean Minor Character(s), Closeted/Questioning Main Character(s).
This book deals repeatedly with the aftermath of sexual assault, and it definitely needed the cw from the start of the book (cw for sexual assault and violence). It may be a difficult read for survivors of violence (sexual or otherwise), but it does not dwell on those scenes. It does a good job of depicting the aftermath of trauma, and how not everyone has the same reaction, and it feels like a lot of care was taken in the text.
The social hierarchy is interesting (Moon Caste are visually mostly demon, Paper Caste are fully human, and Steel Caste are in-between). None of the groups are monoliths, the caste system at first seems to indicate both relative levels of status and oppression, but as the story continue and Lei learns more, she finds out that what matters more than people's skins are the whims of the Demon King. I like the slow unraveling of her assumptions, since they become nuanced as she gains information. It doesn't feel like an unreliable narrator, but one who is doing the best she can with whatever information she possesses.
The romance is tender and sweet, I'm very excited to see how it plays out in the next book. I'm very grateful that the most descriptive scenes were saved for the contact Lei wants with her (eventual) lover, rather than her forced contact with the Demon King (there is no romance for Lei there).