CW: animal death, rape/attempted rape, graphic violence
I was so excited to read this book before its release but put it on the back burner when I read some mixed reviews and also realized the kind of content. But I'm so glad my Stars and Sorcery book club decided to choose this book as our January BOTM and it has been a great experience reading and discussing this very important book.
This is the author's debut but nowhere does the writing feel like that. The descriptions of the places that the MC travels are so vivid and especially the Hidden Palace is described so beautifully that I was surprised even I enjoyed it. If you know me at all, you are already aware that I'm actually not a fan of very descriptive stuff and tend to skim read, but the author made me like her style of writing and imagine all the places she was talking about. The story starts off a bit slow and the pacing can feel a little off initially, but it picks up once Lei reaches the palace and the training for the Paper Girls begins. We also get a unique blend of Asian mythologies, some I knew about and some unknown, but it was still very interesting to read about. This makes for some fascinating world building and I liked getting to know the various places within this world, the hierarchies and their history. I have a feeling we'll get a chance to explore much more in the next book.
The themes of caste division, prejudice towards and oppression of the lower castes by the upper castes and the extreme violence towards women are the major undercurrent throughout the story and I felt that the author handled them all with a lot of sensitivity. As all the Paper Girls are essentially playthings for the Demon King to use whenever he wants, we see first hand the affects of rape and sexual abuse on these girls. The author deftly tells us through the story that not everyone reacts or processes their trauma the same way, each one's PTSD manifests in a different way and every survivor has their own path to recovery. This is a story of the strength and resilience that these young girls show and how they try to take back at least some choices for themselves, step by single step.
Lei, our protagonist is very angry initially for being forcefully taken from her home and blackmailed to become a paper girl. This is where the story faltered for me a bit, but once she meets the other girls and the group dynamics are developed more, the plot became very interesting. Lei's experience is horrific and and she struggles with her trauma, but she also finds strength in herself, in her love for her family and in her determination to never let it happen to her again. Wren is a badass love interest and I would have loved to read her POV (I hope we get it in the next book). Her relationship with Lei is a delicious slow burn and I enjoyed every moment of it. It's also a very empowering one for the two girls because they choose to be with each other, they take control of their bodies and desires after having been violated multiple times and they find strength in each other. Aoki is another character whom I just wanted to give a big hug to, because she is naive and very sympathetic or maybe just that she is handling her trauma in the only way she knows how to - by embracing it as her choice. Blue is supposed to be the mean girl of the group but even she has her own story and reasons for being there and we can't really hate for trying to survive. We also have Chenna, Mariko, Zhin and Zhen - each of them have their own stories and I liked every one of them. When there is such a wonderful group of girls, we naturally get a good dose of friendship, jealousy, drama and betrayal but what stood out for me was that in times of need, they all helped each other - even if it was just in subtle ways.
This is a book where the story builds up slowly, character development is given major importance and everything leads up to a very action packed climax. The content can be difficult to read, so be mindful of it if you decide to pick up this book. However, I think this is a very important YA book and I would definitely recommend it to anyone who is a reader of YA fantasy.