Our guest blogger today is Sabrina Montenigro. Sabrina (she/her/hers) is a bookseller at The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art and a reviewer for Kirkus. She is a recent graduate of the Children’s Literature M.A. program at Simmons College, where her thesis research centered contemporary queer YA. Find her @sabrina_reading on Twitter and Instagram.
Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan
JIMMY Patterson Books / Little, Brown & Co, Nov 2018
Reviewed from ARC
The Storyteller by Traci Chee (Reader/Sea of Ink and Gold Book 3)
Putnam / Penguin Random House, Dec 2018
Reviewed from hardcover
Caution: spoilers ahead!
Plot Summary: Both books take on the overarching project of grappling with identity and destiny, and their intersections with language, in a way that speaks to the queer experience on multiple levels.
In Ikhara, the world of Girls of Paper and Fire, a shaman blesses each infant with a word that is believed to define their life—a word that remains secret until their eighteenth birthday. Six months before her birth-blessing word will be revealed, golden-eyed Lei is taken from her family to join this year’s group of “Paper Girls”—young women of the lowest (Paper; pure human) caste plucked from each region of Ikhara to serve for one year as the Demon (magical animal-human hybrid caste) King’s concubines. Unlike Lei, most of the girls have been groomed for the role since childhood, including aloof, gorgeous Wren, the only daughter of a high-ranking Paper clan. But Wren has a deadly secret, and when she and Lei begin a forbidden romance, they set off a chain of events with far-reaching personal and political consequences. (TW: rape)
Meanwhile, The Storyteller both expands upon and unites the intricate narrative threads of the first two novels in the Sea of Ink and Gold trilogy. An enigmatic group called The Guard has been secretly coordinating the overthrow of Kelanna’s five island nations in order to unite them for “the greater good.” Sefia, the orphaned daughter of two former Guard members, possesses the Guard’s greatest weapon—the magical Book, which contains information about the past, present, and future—and through it, she has learned that her love, Archer, will die after leading an army in the very war the Guard is fomenting. This final installment, narrated (like the first two novels) in many alternating voices, chronicles its characters’ desperate attempts to thwart fate and rewrite their own—and others’—destinies.
N.B.: Both books are fantasies written by women with Asian heritage, and appear to draw upon and center Asian cultures as well as highlighting elements of their characters’ physical appearance. Certain words that connote one or more Asian cultures (including clothing items like cheongsam, hanfu, and sari, as well as food items) are incorporated into both books. However, Traci Chee has said that the trilogy is not Asian-inspired, because China and race as we know it do not exist in the world of the book, but that Sefia is a character who “looks like her.”
Queer Rep: While sexual orientation is never assigned to either Lei or Wren, their physical and emotional desire for one another is very explicit. There are also several instances in which Lei observes herself noticing “flashes of skin” in the women’s bathing area, or sees unnamed same-sex couples at palace functions, but in the palace, sex and sexuality appear to have more to do with power dynamics than love. Though Lei experiences some confusion as she navigates her attraction to Wren, the main conflict surrounding their developing relationship is not Wren’s gender; it’s that their position as Paper Girls means they belong to the King, and are forbidden to take other lovers under penalty of death (fear not—both Wren and Lei survive this book).
While Sefia and Archer are presumed cis and straight, many of their close friends and allies are explicitly queer, and their narrative perspectives are also included in the text: Eduoar Corabelli, known as the Lonely King, and his best friend, attempted murderer, and one-time lover, Arcadimon Detano, find themselves on opposite sides of the conflict; dashing, naive soldier Haldon Lac, is bi or pan; tough old outlaw gunsmith Adeline has a long-term female partner, Isabella. Other characters introduced in this book are non-binary and/or use they/them pronouns: outlaw sea captain Neeram; Ianai, the Rokuine monarch; and Haldon Lac’s blond, blue-eyed friend who dies in an attempt to stop a Guard assassin. In a fantasy world made up of multiple cultures and geographies, it stands to reason (yet is still quite refreshing) that we could expect to see so many types of people represented—and in such a matter-of-fact way, and in multiples!
Final Word: I believe Girls of Paper and Fire is a strong Stonewall contender! It’s refreshing and exciting to see f/f romance in a fantasy book published by a mainstream house with a lot of marketing power, and the world-building and writing is quite compelling. It’s a much more intimate book than The Storyteller in that it almost entirely takes place in a confined space (the palace), but both books deftly explore the complexity of power and conflict: for example, Lei describes her confusion with hating feeling trapped in the palace and in her role, while also enjoying the friendships she’s building with her housemates and her love for Wren.
I tend to assume that sequels are less likely to win awards than the first book in a series, but the Stonewall committee did honor the second book in Rick Riordan’s Magnus Chase series a few years ago, so it’s not impossible that a final book in a trilogy could be recognized. The writing and plotting (not to mention metafictive design elements) throughout the trilogy is exquisite, and The Storyteller’s multiple perspectives (including multiple queer characters, many of whom interact with one another—take that, Bechdel test!) makes it unique. Even the experiences of presumed straight characters in The Storyteller possess a queerly melancholic feeling, so I can honestly say I think that both ought to be considered for the award.
Really Final Word: I found each book’s emphasis on language (the birth-blessing; the Book) particularly exciting since they both depict queer romances, as well as queer and non-binary characters, and they also utilize language and words to call attention to larger questions of destiny and free will, which dovetail nicely with questions of identity and sexuality.
Looking forward to more queer YA fantasy in 2019!