Let’s talk palace intrigue and high fantasy with a side order of young queer women whose fates are in terrible peril and yet! by the end of the novel, still aren’t dead. Because that’s Natasha Ngan’s Girls of Paper and Fire, out this November from the new Little Brown YA imprint “Jimmy Patterson Presents.”
Lei is a daughter of the Paper caste. The Paper caste are fully human, without the part-demon animal-like appearance and strength of the Steel caste, or the even more pronounced animal-like appearance and strength of the Moon caste. Very few Paper caste families are members of the aristocracy: even fewer have any influence at the court of the Demon King, the despotic ruler of the kingdom in which Lei lives. Once, long ago, the castes had mutual respect and peace between them, but since the first Demon King conquered his way to pre-eminence, the Paper caste has become more exploited and despised with every passing year.
The daughter of a maker of herbal remedies, Lei has very little knowledge of court politics, but she knows she hates the Demon King, whose soldiers kidnapped (and presumably murdered) her mother when she was a child. But her life changes when she’s dragged away from her family and forced to become one of the Demon King’s Paper Girls—palace concubines who serve for a year at the king’s pleasure, and whose fates thereafter are in the king’s hands. Lei doesn’t want to belong to the Demon King, but with her life and her family’s lives on the line, she doesn’t see that she has any choice. Her life is placed in even greater peril by the relation she begins to forge with fellow Paper Girl Wren, the daughter of one of the last aristocratic Paper families, a young woman with secrets of her own. If they’re caught, both of them may die.
But Wren is secretly the lynchpin of a plot to assassinate the Demon King and bring down the current oppressive regime. And when Lei discovers this, she demands to help. When things go wrong, and their relationship is betrayed to the Demon King, Lei is left as the last, desperate hope for actually carrying out the assassination—and more than her own life is at stake.
This is an explosively tense and immensely deft novel, that doesn’t shy away from the spectre of sexual violence at the centre of its premise but doesn’t dwell on it, either. Ngan has written a very accomplished work, and I’m really looking forward to the sequel.
Even if I do feel that I’ll probably spend just as much time with that sequel thinking PLEASE NICE QUEER GIRLS DON’T DIE HORRIBLY as I did with this one.
Amy Rose Capetta’s The Brilliant Death is a little easier on the nerves. Teodora di Sangro is a strega, able to transform people into objects and objects into different objects. She doesn’t understand her magic, but that doesn’t keep her from using it to rid her family of its enemies. When an assassination attempt on her father leaves him clinging to life, Teo’s path leads her to the court of the Capo of Vinalia—and crosses with a mysterious shapeshifter, Cielo, who’s boy and girl by turns (as well as mice, clouds, and gusts of wind: Cielo’s powers of transformation aren’t particularly limited). Teo’s magic has always transformed others, not herself, but if she’s to succeed in her self-appointed quest at the Capo’s court and find an antidote for the poison that’s laid her father low, she will have to pass as a boy. Fortunately, Cielo’s on hand to help. Unfortunately, the two of them together will discover hidden truths about the nature of their magic, the Capo, and their respective parents—and Teo will find herself forced to choose whether her loyalties lie with her family, or with the freedom to be herself.
The shapechanging, gender-bending, unapologetically nonbinary characters (and romance) at the heart of this story is enormously touching, and it’s an awful lot of fun. I recommend it if you want a shot of something light and sweet (with assassination, murder, and Dark Secrets).
What are you guys reading lately?
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, where she’s been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.