Today I’m bringing you something new: a post about my recent Buddy Read with Dani @ Perspective of a Writer!
Dani is one of my favorite book bloggers—I love her unique take on reading as a writer. I saw that she’d posted some buddy read posts, so I reached out and asked if she’d be interested in buddy reading with me.
This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this, so I was really excited to branch out. Today, I’ll be answering questions Dani asked me about reading Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan. Make sure to check out Dani’s post as well so you can see her answers to my questions!
What were your expectations going into Girls of Paper and Fire? Were those expectations met or surpassed? Was there anything about the story that you want to point out as really well done? Anything you would have liked developed better?
I’d heard a lot of buzz around the blogosphere about Girls of Paper and Fire. Several diverse book bloggers I admire a lot had raved about it when it first came out.
I definitely went into the book expecting, well, a lot. I knew it had amazing Asian rep, and that definitely lived up to my expectations. I enjoyed the f/f romance as well. I got really into the world-building, even though I’m not a huge fantasy reader. There was enough detail to help me paint a mental picture of what was going on, etc. but not so much that I felt like I was being dumped on.
That being said, I do feel that Lei, the main character, could’ve been more developed. She definitely has a Dark Past that haunts her in the present, and she’s very concerned about the fate of her remaining family members. Other than that, I don’t feel like I know a whole lot about her, enough to believe her capable of her actions in the story. Without giving anything further away, I guess I just wish I’d gotten to know Lei a little bit more outside the context of the plot itself. Hopefully I’ll get to know her a bit better in the sequel!
The world building was a major reason I wanted to read Girls of Paper and Fire. There is clearly a caste system in place that weighs the balance of power in the favor of those with demon blood. Hence this becomes a story about the choices we make when in untenable situations. What are your thoughts on how Girls of Paper and Fire explored this theme? How do you imagine readers will absorb Lei and the other Paper Girl’s choices?
I absolutely loved the power dynamic themes in this book! Because Lei is an outsider, rather than having been raised to become a Paper Girl, you can definitely see her struggling to absorb her new role. I found myself wondering what I would do if I were forced into this situation.
While I admired some of Lei’s actions, particularly the way she stands up for herself whenever possible, I think I’d behave more like Aoki—she’s timid and does what she can to fit into her circumstances. I’m definitely not much of a rebel, when in those sorts of situations, but it was neat to watch Lei interact.
As dark and upsetting as the story was at certain points, it’s ultimately an empowering one. I think this is an important book for young girls to read, in particular, so they can see the darker side of sexual politics and how sometimes the powerless are the ones who ultimately must take back power for themselves.
The Paper Girls come from a range of backgrounds and are as diverse as our world. What did you think of how each girl was portrayed? Did their diversity come out in the story? And because I love this question you sent me (yes, readers I stole one of Christine’s very neat questions)… Of the Paper Girls in the book, which girl are you most similar to in terms of personality? Which girl do you most admire?
I was really impressed with how Natasha Ngan brought something different to each girl in the story. On the one hand, you have Blue, the noble paper caste girl who thinks she’s better than everyone else. And on the other hand, there’s someone like Aoki, who’s raised more or less on purpose to be a sex slave to the king.
I loved how each girl was described with different features: Chenna is described as being darker skinned and from the South, whereas the twin girls are described as being paler. What I loved most was how each of the girls come from slightly different cultural backgrounds. I learned a bit about different styles of dress as well as religious practices as well. Yet despite their differences, the girls ultimately come together to support each other. I loved the picture of what’s possible for female solidarity in the bitterest of circumstances.
I definitely admired Wren the most, but like I said, I think I resemble Aoki more in terms of how she interacts with the world. I would try to keep things positive, but ultimately I am just not much of a rebel!
Paper Girls are basically sex slaves to the King. There is a lot of brutality and a predominant focus on sex through the book even though its not graphically described. And there is violence against women in the course of intimacy. What did you think about how this was explored? What connections can be made between this fantasy world and the real world for readers?
I knew that there was an aspect of sexual violence to this book, but I was quite impressed by how carefully it’s handled. Ngan did a really wonderful job of both showing the brutality, but not making the scenes unnecessarily violent.
I really appreciated the frank discussions of sex in the book. It’s rare, in a YA book, to have open talk about sexual arousal. One of my favorite scenes occurs in the Night Houses with Zelle, one of the concubines who’s charged with more or less teaching the Paper Girls how to be sexy. I loved the way Zelle described sex as being really natural, but that it involves an aspect of embracing oneself in order to reach that level of comfort. I definitely think we need more books that subtly show young women embracing their own sexuality.
As far as connecting to the real world, I think Ngan did a great job of expressing how wrong it is to force sex on someone. This story goes a long way to demonstrate just how much rape is an aspect of power, not just sex. Although it’s difficult to read, ultimately the characters do gain an aspect of power over their captors, and I really enjoyed watching that process.
There is a queer romance at the heart of Girls of Paper and Fire. Lei didn’t understand where her sexuality lay at the start of the story. What did you think about how she explored her attraction to girls? Is this something teen readers will be able to relate to as they explore their own sexuality? I really, really loved Wren, the Paper Girl Lei falls in love with. How did feel as you learned about Wren’s feelings for Lei?
I definitely found Lei really relatable. Without getting too personal, I didn’t really understand my own attraction to women for a long time; I always knew I was attracted to men, and that was such a default that I didn’t question it until I was much older.
I thought it was really interesting that, because the book is set in a fantasy world, Lei and Wren don’t really use any sort of labels. I think it’s really powerful to read a story about a girl exploring her queerness without it being a coming-out style story.
I loved watching Lei and Wren fall for each other, mostly because their relationship starts out as being a test of trust. Lei finds out secrets about Wren, and Wren in turn supports Lei in her rebellion. I thought it was really beautifully done, and it’s so important to show teens that good relationships are built on mutual respect and trust, not just lust.
When Lei becomes a Paper Girl she is quite resistant. Then she realizes she’ll have an opportunity to find out what happened to her mother. That mystery is something that gnaws on her through Girls of Paper and Fire. Was this well explored through the plot? Were you satisfied with what and how Lei learns?
It definitely seemed like Lei’s family exists in the plot as a way to keep Lei a bit more docile. She wants to resist the king and her role as a Paper Girl, but she’s afraid of what he’ll do to her family. She only calms down a bit when she gets to research what happened to her mother.
To me, her discovery is ultimately pretty anticlimactic. It felt like that scene was mostly there to allow her and Wren to bond over their mutual loss. I wish the mystery had been a little bit more fleshed out. It would’ve been interesting to see what would happen if Lei’s mom was actually a concubine inside the city.
Lei makes a big deal about the oaths and secrets Wren made to others before they met. She talks about lying and trust even though she and Wren haven’t known each other long. This is a theme played out in many relationships found in books. Did you feel like Lei did, that Wren was lying to her and that it was uncalled for? What bearing do you feel not knowing about her mother plays in Lei’s relationship with Wren? Is there ever a time when keeping secrets is understandable?
As much as I wanted Lei and Wren to get together pretty much from the start, I could completely understand Wren’s motives for keeping secrets. It’s not like they were in a typical high school setting or something; their lives are literally on the line. Especially once we learned why Wren was keeping to herself so much, I could definitely understand where she’s coming from.
I could understand Lei’s frustration, I definitely feel like it was a bit overdone. There’s a difference between lying on purpose and keeping secrets to protect yourself. In some ways, Lei seems more concerned with finding out the truth—about her mother, and about Wren—than she does about surviving her life as a Paper Girl. I don’t think the true danger of her situation really sunk in, on some level, just based on how she acts in certain situations.
You mentioned that you felt let down by how minimally Lei’s character was constructed. This is quite a brutal world Natasha Ngan paints. To me Lei felt like a “special snowflake” who escaped not only experiencing what the others did, but the true consequences of the situation. Yet she goes on to inspire Wren and Zelle with her resistance of the king. Did you feel her punishment was in line with resisting a king? Do you believe he would have allowed her to live and instigate resistant thinking among the other Paper Girls?
YES I definitely feel like Lei was a special snowflake and/or a reader-insert character. Which makes sense: the reader needs a point of entry to the story, and Lei, with her resistance to and ignorance of how things work in the life of a Paper Girl, makes for a great character in that sense. She definitely seems to get away with a lot: for whatever reason, the king decides to save her for last, and then (SPOILER) Lei ends up resisting the king’s advances and escaping her first time with him for quite some time (END SPOILER).
I do think Ngan could’ve been harsher in terms of what happens to Lei. Based on her resistance to the king, and the fact that she was ultimately added onto the Paper Girl roster as an afterthought, I do feel like Lei could’ve been sentenced to die. It seems that paper caste people in general are disposable in this world, so I feel like Lei is kept alive because she’s the main character of the story. That being said, Lei does inspire others around her, and that’s an important aspect of the plot. Maybe this is just one of those things where you have to suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. Still, I do wish Lei was more complex as far as characterization goes.
With all of the different females in the Women’s Court did you enjoy Girls of Paper and Fire from only one POV? Would you have enjoyed reading one or two of the other Paper Girls’ POVs? Whose and why? Do you think this would have changed your opinion of Girls of Paper and Fire?
Ooooh I love this question, because it’s such a writing question! To be quite honest, I feel like so many YA books are in first person, and I would’ve loved to see from the perspective of other characters. I obviously loved Aoki so much, but I would’ve been really curious to see inside Blue’s head; as it stands, we only learn the truth of why she’s such a jerk when Lei is told about Blue’s backstory.
I can understand why Wren doesn’t have a POV, since it would lose some of the mystery of what she’s up to, but I would’ve loved to see more from other girls. In some respects, Lei comes across as a bit…well, slut-shame-y, when it comes to how she treats the other girls. It would’ve been nice to see how the other Paper Girls dealt with having to be the king’s sex slaves.
I know you loved Zelle, a concubine who trains the girls. Why did you love this character so much? What did you think about her training and actions toward Lei?
To be honest, I found Zelle waaaay hotter than Wren (even though Wren is super dreamy, I won’t lie). In some respects, she’s kind of a classic character: the prostitute who teaches the newbies how to do their jobs. I think what really drew me to her is how she combined sex positivity with an aspect of power. By taking control of her sexuality and her emotions, even though she’s forced to sleep with men she doesn’t want, Zelle takes back a lot of the power these men have over her.
In her own way, too, Zelle encourages Lei to follow her heart. It’s in that first training scene with Zelle that Lei begins to realize her feelings for Wren. I honestly wish I’d had someone to talk openly with about sexual feelings as a young person; I was raised to never talk about it, so I’m now 29 and still figuring out my sexuality. I guess a part of me wishes I had a Zelle in my own life when I was 17. Which I realize sounds super weird, but we’re gonna just go with it.
Okay, I’m sorry but I’m dying to know your answer so I’m going to steal one more questions… If you were a Steel or Moon caste in Ikhara, what do you think your animal form would be?
First of all, there should totally be some kind of Buzzfeed internet quiz for this question.
I’d like to think I’d be some kind of big cat, like a panther or leopard. As a kid, I used to imagine I was something powerful like that. In truth, I’d probably be more like Lill, a little bit fawnish and soft and delicate. Honestly, this question is really hard to answer—but I’m looking forward to seeing what you’d be!