Thoughts on GIRLS OF PAPER & FIRE by Natasha Ngan (slow-build stories and reader investment)


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.

Disclaimer: I am not calling this a review (I explain in this post why I have too much trouble writing book reviews) just some thoughts on the book and reflections on story craft.

Positives first. The thing I liked best about Girls of Paper and Fire was Ngan’s rich sensory language. The writing was flowery in the best way – in that I could smell it and feel the petals on my skin. Ngan made each of her settings breathe, which is no small achievement.

That said, settings and sensory details don’t carry a book. The characters do. I stopped reading Girls of Paper and Fire several months ago for the simple reason that I couldn’t connect with the characters and therefore found that I wasn’t invested in the plot. The people who encouraged me to give it a second try assured me that the first part was slow for everyone and that story picked up in the last third. This is true, but here’s the problem: a slow-build book that flubs the build is kind of doomed?

I am the last person to complain about slow-build stories. Not only do I write them, two of my favorite fantasy books are Six of Crows and Way of Kings, both of which spend most of their daunting page count on character background. The difference between those stories and Girls of Paper and Fire is that I was thoroughly interested in the former’s characters due to their clear motivations, colorful personalities, and interesting psychological damage. By the time the long-awaited action arrived, I cared deeply what happened to every character. If the first two thirds of Girls of Paper and Fire succeeds in making some readers care about Lei and co., then for those people, I would guess that the book is a smashing success. Sadly, it didn’t work for me. The girls’ personalities were too one-dimensional, their backgrounds too generic, and their motivations too mundane for me to connect to them.

A protagonist who lacks palpable drive, an interesting backstory, or an exciting personality is not necessarily a problem; it’s when we’re missing all of those things that a character starts to lose me. This was an issue with Lei from page one. We get a rich picture of the life she lives, but nothing about her desires, hopes, aspirations, or anything that might make us invested in what happens to her next.

So, when the antagonists arrived, it was hard for me to get invested. I felt bad because bad things were happening – a girl is being taken from her family and sexually assaulted, her cute pet is dead, etc. – but it never felt relevant that it was happening to this girl, which seemed to me like a missed opportunity. Even very average teenage girls have a tendency to dream big and want ferociously. The loss of those dreams is a tragedy that should have hit hard in the first two thirds of Girls of Paper and Fire but didn’t because Lei was just… too bland? She didn’t want anything palpably. She didn’t envision a bright future for herself. She had no distinct qualities that made me root for her. So, when she experienced loss and suffering, I was left with the detached feeling of sadness you get when you see that something terrible has happened to a stranger on the news. It never felt real or near – despite the vividly descriptive language.

I realize that Lei acquires motivation later in the story, in the form of her love interest, but for me, it was too little too late. Maybe if more of the book had been devoted to their blooming relationship, instead of it waiting until so late in the story, I wouldn’t have minded. Then again, I tend to be deeply bored by characters’ whose main motivation is romantic interest, so maybe not. But we’ve strayed far into my own preferences now, so let’s try to find a point.

What is the lesson here?

I would say that my experience of Girls of Paper and Fire is a nice case study in the importance of character in a slow-build story. The lesson: that stretch of “nothing happens” character building MUST make the reader care about the characters in question. If the reader doesn’t get invested during the slow build (as I was never invested in Lei and co.) then, not only does all that build feel like a waste of time, but the climax lacks vital tension.

I don’t say this to point to Girls of Paper and Fire as a decidedly negative ‘what not to do’ example of the slow build – because other reviews I’ve read suggest that there are many readers who did connect with Lei and were invested in her journey throughout. Instead, I want to point to that investment as a crucial determining factor in a reader’s enjoyment (or lack thereof) of a story. As I mentioned above, I would guess that you could draw a line between the people who liked Girls of Paper and Fire overall and those who disliked it based on whether or not they were able to connect with Lei during the first half of the book.

As a storyteller, I think it’s important to keep reader investment in mind at all times. Why should the reader care what happens to these people? What makes these characters sympathetic? What makes them interesting? What makes them worth following into the belly of the beast?

I think it’s worth saying here that a simplistic, scrappy character like Lei probably would have appealed to me when I was a young reader – twelve or thirteen – before I started craving more ideological meat on a protagonist. The issue is that much of the content in Girls of Paper and Fire isn’t appropriate for a preteen – not that it would have traumatized me at that age; I just wouldn’t have been able to relate to or understand it very well. So, maybe this book is perfect for earnest, unpretentious readers in their teens or early twenties? It just didn’t work for me.

All that said, I have nothing but respect for Natasha Ngan’s unflinching efforts to tackle representation and trauma, and for that reason, I’m glad this book seems to be doing well.

My own young adulthood would have been vastly improved by the existence of more fantasy stories with Asian and LGBT protagonists, so I’m overjoyed with this growing wave of diverse fiction on both fronts. Whether or not I enjoy Ngan’s work, I appreciate her part in opening the doors for more fantasy in the same vein.

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