Genre: YA Fantasy
Queer Rep: Lesbian
Warnings: Off page sexual assault and discussions of sexual assault, violence
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 learn 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.
My thirst for fantasy remained high while perusing the shelves of Barnes and Noble, and my thirst for F/F even higher. When I found this gem—with a gorgeous cover and POC protagonist—it was love at first sight. Lucky for me, this rich, intricately woven world and believable characters made sure the love remained until the very last page.
This Asian-inspired fantasy introduced me to a world like one I’d never seen without ever over-burdening me with information. Things were delivered gracefully, naturally, leading me by the hand into a place with hidden castles, powerful shaman, and demons.
Demons in this book are nothing like what most western media presents to us; the demons here are the ruling caste, with features both human and animal. Characters could be seen with scaled limbs and long snouts, feathered arms and taloned feet, and hulking bodies with horns of bulls.
Our purely human protagonist must live among a people who have persecuted and wronged her, all the while maintaining the dignified air of a lady. Our protagonist thinks that’s bullshit.
The ensuing action and inaction from Lei’s refusal to be the perfect paper girl—even while pretending to be one—is where the story pulls most of its meat. It is engaging and personal, and impossible not to root for our heroine every step of the way.
Ngan creates a stunning world that feels touchable beneath her sweeping descriptions. It never felt like too much, and her prose was a genuine joy to read. You see the beautiful, the ugly, the terrifying. You feel the imposing aura of the castle lift from the page, and the peaceful radiance of the gardens fills you with ease. I could have stayed wrapped in Ngan’s words for months with no complaints.
It took me a little while to fully connect to Lei, but I think this is a general problem I have with YA. Like, as a person. She’s a great protagonist with millions of reasons to love her, and once we started to jive everything because so much more emotional and pertinent. She’s bold, and stubborn—to a fault, sometimes—and I loved watching her grow. I also adored her love interest. For the sake of not giving things away, I’ll just say she had me in her corner immediately. All the girls surrounding Lei were layered and interesting, keeping the narrative fresh and unexpected as they revealed their true natures.
As an important aside, you can tell this book is written by a woman who loves women. The descriptions, the care she took with the characters, every single detail… it was therapeutic and energizing to read something so earnest and genuine in the F/F YA market.
I had a few small gripes with things in the book, but nothing to affect my enjoyment too severely. Ngan overexplained Lei’s feelings sometimes (readers of my reviews will know this is my biggest pet peeve, and if it doesn’t bother you personally then ignoring me is in your best interest!) and my delayed attachment to Lei made the beginning feel a little longer than it actually was. These gripes are so personal that I almost didn’t write them down. In general, I want to recommend this novel to anyone who loves F/F or fantasy. It’s a beautiful and empowering ride.
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