I finished this book a couple of days ago but needed a few days to fully digest it. It was a very good and well written but it is also very uncomfortable. I’ll admit I was drawn in by the cover. It is about sexual violence towards women and doesn’t hold back. In fact the book has a warning of his contents of violence and sexual assaults. Even knowing that it was part of the plot didn’t make it any less upsetting or uncomfortable to read. That being said, it also has a beautiful love story between two equally powerful women and female friendships that is not always depicted in YA. I’m going to put my review under the cut because I want to sensitive to those who are experience trauma and may not want to read. I also there will be spoilers as there is no way to talk about the themes of this book without doing so.
In the Country of Ikhara is split up into the three different castes. The Moon Caste are the rulers. They are mostly animal with some human quality. The lowest caste are the Paper Casts and they are fully human. The middle caste are the Steel and they are mixture of both. Every year the kingdom pick eight girls from the paper castes to be a Paper Girl. It is considered to be an honor to be picked. To be picked for the honor, you can either be offered up by their family or “recruited” for the honor. Lei was neither. She was taken from her home by some random General who has lost favor with the King and thinks he can get it back if he “gifts” Lei to him as a Paper Girl. Why Lei? While she is just a lowly human she has golden eyes that are seen as a good omen. Lei goes along with the General under the threat of her family being hurt or killed if she doesn’t. She is taken to the Palace and joins the girls and is trained in all the “womanly arts” so she will be the perfect concubine for the King because that’s what a Paper Girl is, the King’s concubines. They may be given beautiful clothes to wear and delicious food to eat and taken to the most prestigious parties and performances in the kingdom but make no mistake, this is sex slavery. They have no freedom. They have no choice but to go and consent to the King’s every whim because refusing to do so would not only bring terrible consequences for them but their families too. This whole concept is beyond wrong but also important to read because it does still happen today. Each of the girls deals with it different ways. Some just except it as part of their duty. The were born to be a Paper Girl to further they families prospects. Other girls have an almost Stockholm Syndrome experience and start to believe the King is in love with them and they in love with him. Then there is Lei who fights every chance she gets against it. She goes through the motions because she knows that if she doesn’t her family will be hurt but she also can’t help rebellion against it. In her first night with the King, she doesn’t want to have sex with him but is told over and over she has no choice. She tries to convince herself that she can do it but when it comes time she is able to fight him off. The punishment for refusing him is severe. She is put in solitary confinement without food for a week. It gives the reader some hope that Lei may be able to escape her fate as a Paper Girl but she can’t and it makes it even more devastating when the assault does happen because she did everything she could to stop it.
It wasn’t all depressing because in between the horribleness there was a beautiful romance between Lei and Wren, another Paper Girl. Wren is everything that Lei is not. She is at first aloof and distant from the other girls because well she has a secret and it’s a good one. Let’s just say, she is pretty badass. I know that I have given many spoilers already but I’ll keep some so it’s not completely ruined for you. Wren and Lei fall in love and it’s great. They see each other for who they are. They understand the shitty position they are in support each other. They are two very different girls with different strengths and no less powerful. Maybe the most rebellious thing they can do in these circumstance is fall in love. There are a lot of unhealthy relationships in YA and just in literature in general. It’s always important to praise the healthy ones when they come. Another unusual relationship in YA and in general, female friendships. The girls in this book really do support each other. Yes, there are one who is your typical mean girl but the rest are more supportive of each other. They could easily compete with each other because being the King’s favorite leads to more favorable opportunities after their year as a Paper Girl is over. Instead the girls band together and help each other through the pain and trauma they are all suffering. When Lei comes back from confinement, they all rally around her and make her feel at home. When one comes back from a rough encounter with the King, they stay up and talk with her or not talk with her if that is what she wants. They lean on each other when they need each other and it’s beautiful. Not to say they don’t have disagreements but when they need each other they are there.
There is nothing romantic or nice about Lei’s situation. She is forced in to sex slavery and is told over and over again how fortunate she is to be here. She is physically and sexually assaulted throughout the book and despite all of that, she finds ways to fight it. She finds ways to rebel and that takes a certain level of strength. So yes, this is a hard book to read but worth it.