'Girls Of Paper And Fire' By Natasha Ngan Is The Asian-Inspired Fantasy You've Always Wanted To Read — Cover & Excerpt Reveal!

Ad failed to load

A stereotype-smashing, female, LGBTQ, Asian, fantasy protagonist that is based in the author's own experiences? Serious question: Was Natasha Ngan's Girls of Paper and Fire birthed from our collective dreams?

Coming October 23 from James Patterson's imprint JIMMY Patterson Books, Girls of Paper and Fire is Ngan's first novel to be published in the U.S. and it has already building up major buzz. It's a dazzling fantasy YA book inspired by Asian mythology and Ngan's own experience growing up in Malaysia. Luckily for you, you don't have to wait until October to get your first look at the book. Bustle has teamed up with JIMMY Patterson Books for an exclusive cover reveal and an except of the prologue and chapter one.

Every year, eight girls are plucked from their homes and forced to serve the Demon King of Ikhara as Paper Girls, essentially concubines. This year, however, there are nine: Lei, a member of the lowest class, the Paper caste, catches the king's attention with her golden eyes and is added to the group.

Ad failed to load

Stripped of her free will and control over her body, Lei doesn't break down. Rather, she finds the strength to revolt against her position and even fall in love with one of the other servant girls — which is strictly forbidden. Together they have to find a way to fight against the king and the system that oppresses them to achieve freedom.

Check out the gorgeous cover for Girls of Paper and Fire and get a head start reading below!

Ad failed to load

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, $13, Amazon


There is a tradition in our kingdom, one all castes of demon and human follow. We call it the Birth-blessing. It is such an old, deep-rooted custom that it’s said even our gods themselves practiced it when they bore our race onto the earth. When babies die before their first year there are whispers like leaves fluttering darkly on the wind: the ceremony was performed too late; the parents must have spoken during it; the shaman who executed the blessing was unskilled, a fake.

Ad failed to load

Coming from the lowest caste — Paper caste, fully human — my parents had to save for the full nine months after the news of my mother’s pregnancy. Though I’ve never seen a Birth-blessing ceremony, I’ve imagined my own so many times that it feels almost like a memory, or some half-remembered dream.

Picture smoke-cut night and darkness like a heavy black hand cupped round the world. Crackling fire. Standing before the flames—a shaman, his leathery skin webbed with tattoos, teeth sharpened to wolf-like points. He’s bent over the naked form of a newborn, just hours old. She’s crying. On the other side of the fire, her parents watch in silence, hands clasped so tightly their knuckles are white. The shaman’s eyes roll as he chants a dao, painting its characters in the air with his fingers, where they hang above the baby, glowing softly before fading away.

Though I’ve never seen a Birth-blessing ceremony, I’ve imagined my own so many times that it feels almost like a memory, or some half-remembered dream.
Ad failed to load

As he comes to the crest of the prayer, a wind picks up. The grass stirs in a feathery rustle. Faster and faster the shaman chants, and louder and louder the rustle and the wind, until the fire whips upwards, a whorl of orange-red flame dancing high into the sky before flashing suddenly out.


The starlit night.

Ad failed to load

Then the shaman reaches into the air where the fire had been for the object floating in its wake: a small, golden, egg-like pendant. But the pendant isn’t what’s important. What’s important is what the pendant hides within.

The baby’s fate. My fate.

Our kingdom believes words have power. That the characters of our language can bless or curse a life. Inside the pendant is a single character. One word that we believe will reveal a person’s true destiny. And if, as my parents hoped when they saved for my ceremony, my life will be blessed, or whether my fate is something far darker...cursed years to be played out in fire and shadow.

Ad failed to load

In six months when I turn eighteen, the pendant will open and its answer will finally be revealed.

Chapter One

Our shop is busy this morning. Not even noon yet and it’s already packed with customers, the room bright with chatter, Tien’s barking voice cutting through the thick summer air. Sunlight streams in through the slatted windows, drowsy with cicada song and bee-buzz. Sandals slap on the floorboards. Beneath it all, like the shop’s familiar heartbeat, comes the bubble of the mixing barrels where we brew our herbal medicines. The six tubs are lined along the back of the store, so big they reach my shoulders. Five are full of pungent herbal mixtures. The sixth is empty, filled instead with me — admittedly, also pungent after an hour’s hard work scrubbing dried residue from the buckled wood.

Ad failed to load

“Almost done, little nuisance?”

I’m working at a particularly stubborn stain when Tien’s face appears over the rim of the barrel. Feline eyes, rimmed with black; greying hair flowing softly over pointed cat ears. She regards me with her head cocked.

I swipe the back of my hand over my forehead. Little nuisance. She’s been calling me that for as long as I can recall.

Ad failed to load

“I’m seventeen, Tien,” I point out. “Not little anymore.” “Well,” she says, with a click of her tongue. “Still a nuisance.” “I wonder where I get it from.”

A smirk rises up to challenge my own. “I’ll pretend you’re talking about your father. Ai yah, where is that lazy man? He was meant to refill our stock of monsoon berries an hour ago!” She waves a hand. “Go fetch him. Mistress Zembi is waiting for her consultation.”

“Only if you say please,” I retort, and her ears twitch. “Demanding for a Paper caste, aren’t you?”

Ad failed to load

“You’re the Steel with a Paper boss.”

With a sigh, she lifts her brows. “And I regret it every day.”

As she bustles off to deal with a customer, I smile despite myself at the proud flick of her neat lynx ears. Tien has worked for us for as long as I can remember, more family now than shop- hand despite our caste differences. Because of that, sometimes it’s easy to forget that there are differences between us. But while my father and I are Paper caste, Tien belongs to the middle caste, Steel. Somewhere between my plain human body and the animal-like strength of Moon castes, Steel castes have elements of both, making them a strange meeting-point between human and demon, like a drawing only halfway finished. As with most Steels, Tien has just touches of demon: a tapered feline maw; the greying amber cat’s fur wrapped around her neck and shoulders, like a shawl.

Ad failed to load
“You’re the Steel with a Paper boss.”
With a sigh, she lifts her brows. “And I regret it every day.”

Greeting the customer, Tien’s hands automatically pat down that messy ruff of fur where it pokes from the collar of her shirt. But it just sticks straight back up.

Ad failed to load

My lips quirk. It must have been a prank by the gods to give someone as fussy as her such unruly hair.

I climb over the side of the tub and catch a better look at the woman Tien is talking to. Her hair is pulled back, twining past a pair of elegant deer horns as slender as vine. Another Steel demon. My eyes travel over her elegant kebaya glittering with silver threads and embroidery. It’s clear that she belongs to an affluent family: the jewels dangling from her ears alone would keep our shop running for a year.

As I’m wondering why someone like her has come to our shop – she must be from out of town, no one here has that kind of money – her gaze glides past Tien and catches mine.

Ad failed to load

Her green-flecked eyes grow wide. “So it’s true.”

I just about make out her murmur over the noise of the shop. My face flushes. Of course.

She heard the rumors.

Ad failed to load

I turn away, ducking through the bead-curtained doorway to the backrooms of our old shop building. The deer-woman’s elegance has made me extra aware of the state I’m in. Clumps of dirt cling to my clothes—a pair of loose, sand-colored trousers and a wrap-shirt knotted at the waist with a frayed sash — and my ankles are soaked with the camphor liquid I was using to clean the mixing barrel. Stray hairs stick to my cheeks with sweat. Sweeping them back, I re-tie my ponytail, and my mind slips for a moment, remembering.

Other fingers looping a red ribbon through my hair.

A smile like sunshine. Laughter even brighter. Strange, how grief works. Seven years on and some days I struggle to remember her face, while other times my mother seems so real to me that I almost expect her to amble in through the front door, smelling like peony petals in the rain, a laugh on her lips and a kiss for Baba and me.

Ad failed to load

“She’s gone,” I tell myself roughly. “And she’s not coming back.”

With a shake of my head, I head down the corridor out onto the sunlit veranda. Our garden is narrow but long, bordered by a mossy wall. An old fig tree dapples the grass with shade. The summer warmth heightens the fragrances of our herb plot, the tangled patchwork of plants running down the center of the garden, familiar scents rising from it: chrysanthemum, sage, ginger. Charms threaded along wire to keep the birds away chime in the breeze.

A cheerful-sounding bark draws my attention. My father is crouched in the grass a few feet away. Bao, our little dog, wriggles happily at his toes as my father scratches his belly and feeds him scraps of dried mango, his favorite treat.

Ad failed to load
The summer warmth heightens the fragrances of our herb plot, the tangled patchwork of plants running down the center of the garden, familiar scents rising from it: chrysanthemum, sage, ginger.

At my footsteps, my father hides the fruit behind his back. Bao lets out an indignant bark. Bouncing up, he snatches the last piece of mango from my father’s fingers before running to me, stubbed tail wagging victoriously.

I squat down, fingers finding the sensitive spot behind his ear. “Hello, greedy,” I laugh, tickling it.

Ad failed to load

“About what you just saw...” my father starts as he comes over.

I shoot him a sideways look. “Don’t worry, Baba. I won’t tell Tien.”

“Good. Because then I’d have to tell her how you overslept this morning and forgot to pick up that batch of galangal Master Ohsa is keeping for us.”

Ad failed to load

Gods. I completely forgot.

I spring to my feet. “I’ll go and get it now,” I say, but my father shakes his head. “It’s not urgent, dear. Go tomorrow.”

“Well,” I reply with a knowing smile, “Mistress Zembi is here for her consultation, and that is urgent. So unless you want Tien to threaten to skin you alive...”

Ad failed to load

He shudders. “Don’t remind me. The things that woman can do with a fish-gutting knife.”

Laughing, we head back into the house, our steps falling in line. For a moment, it feels so like before—when our family was still whole, and our hearts. When it didn’t hurt to think of my mother, to whisper her name in the middle of the night and know she can’t answer. But despite his joking, Baba’s smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes, and it reminds me that I’m not the only one haunted by their memories.

Ad failed to load

* * *

I was born on the first day of the New Year, under the watchful gaze of the full moon as my parents took me back from my Birth-blessing ceremony to the herb-shop that was to become my home. They named me Lei, with a soft rising tone. They told me they chose it because the word makes your mouth form a smile, and they wanted to smile every time they thought of me. Even when I’d accidentally knocked over a tray of herbs or let Bao in to paw muddy footprints across the floor, the corners of their mouths couldn’t help but tuck up, no matter how loudly they shouted.

Ad failed to load

But these past seven years, even my name hasn’t been able to make my father smile often enough.

I look a lot like her, my mother. I catch Baba startling some mornings when I come down, my raven hair long and loose, my short frame silhouetted in the doorway. Though neither of my parents knew where I inherited my eyes.

I wonder what they thought when they first saw them. When baby-me opened her eyes to reveal the luminous, liquid shine of gold.

Ad failed to load

For most, my eye color is a sign of luck — a gift from the gods. Customers request for me to make their herbal mixtures, hoping it will make them more potent. Even demons visit our shop occasionally, like the deer-woman today, lured by the rumor of the human girl with golden eyes.

Tien always laughs about that. “They don’t believe you’re pure Paper,” she tells me conspiratorially. “They say you must be part demon to have eyes the color of the New Year’s moon.”

What I don’t tell her is that sometimes I wish I were part demon.

Ad failed to load

On my rare days off, I head into the valleys surrounding our village to watch the bird-form clan that lives in the mountains to the north. Though they’re too far to be anything more than silhouetted shapes, dark cutouts of wings spread in motion, in my mind’s eye I make out every detail. I paint their feathers in silvers and pearls; sketch the light of the sun on their wing tips. The demons soar through the sky over the valley, riding the wind in effortless movements as graceful as dance, and they look so free it aches some part deep in me.

“They don’t believe you’re pure Paper,” she tells me conspiratorially. “They say you must be part demon to have eyes the color of the New Year’s moon.”

Even though I know it isn’t fair, I can’t help but wonder whether if Mama had been born with wings, she’d have escaped wherever she was taken to and flown back to us by now.

Ad failed to load

Sometimes I watch the sky, just waiting, and hoping.

* * *

Ad failed to load

Over the next few hours, the bubble of the mixing pots and Bao’s little barks play a familiar soundtrack while we work. As usual, my father takes consultations with new clients and meets with farmers and rare plant traders from out of town, Tien deals with the general running of the store, and all the odd jobs nobody wants to do are handed to me. Tien frequently bustles over to chide me on the roughness of my chopped herbs and could I be any slower when picking up a customer’s package from the storeroom? Or do I need reminding that she’s a distant descendant of the legendary Xia warriors, so if I don’t work any harder she’ll be forced to practice her deadly martial arts skills on me?

“Still sounds a lot more fun than this,” I grumble as I swelter in the storeroom sorting out deliveries—though I wait until she’s out of earshot before saying so.

Ad failed to load

My last task of the day is refilling the hundreds of herb-boxes lining the walls of the store that contain ingredients for our medicines. They are stacked high from floor to ceiling. Behind the countertop that rings the room, a ladder on metal rollers runs along the walls to access the boxes. I slide the ladder to the back wall and climb halfway up, arms aching from the day’s work. I’m just reaching for the box marked Ginseng Roots, my thoughts drifting to what Tien will be cooking for dinner tonight, when a noise sounds in the distance.

A low, carrying horn-blow.

At once, everything falls quiet. Conversations; the slap of sandals; even the simmer of the mixing barrels seem to drop. All thoughts of dinner are whipped away as I freeze where I am, arm still outstretched. Only my mind moves, lurching back, returning to that day.

Ad failed to load

To fire.

To claws, and screaming, and the feel of my mother’s fingers being torn from mine.

For a few moments, nothing happens. It’s just long enough to hesitate. For a flutter of doubt to lift a hopeful wing. Then the horn sounds again, closer this time – and with it comes the pound of hooves.

Ad failed to load

Horses, moving fast. They draw nearer, their heavy hoof-fall growing louder and louder, until the noise of it is almost deafening and all of a sudden hulking shadows in the street block the windows at the front of the shop, casting the room into darkness.

Distorted shadows, like the nightmare version of what a human should be.

Stillness, and the dark pulse of terror. A baby wails in a house nearby. From outside comes a dog bark, and I think—Bao. A sliver runs down my back. He went off a while ago, probably to the food stalls to beg for treats or play with the children who ruffle his hair and giggle when he licks their faces.

Ad failed to load


My father has moved to the bottom of the ladder. His voice is low, a rough whisper. He holds out his hand. Despite the hard set of his jaw, his face has drained.

Distorted shadows, like the nightmare version of what a human should be.
Ad failed to load

I step down from the ladder and weave my fingers through his, the quick trip of his pulse at his wrist a mirror to mine. Because the last time we heard the call of this horn was the night my mother was taken. And if that’s what the Demon King’s men stole from us then, what might they possibly take from us this time?

Girls of Paper and Fire by Natasha Ngan, $13, Amazon

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

Here's Where Your Next Trip Should Be, Based On Your Zodiac Sign

If you've been craving a vacation, now is a good time to take the plunge. According to data collected by travel site Expedia, late winters and early spring are pretty much the best times of the year to go on vacation. Based on average airfare ticket …
By Callie Tansill-Suddath

Bustle's Editors On Jennifer Aniston + Adam Rippon

We've made it to Friday! It's been a pretty hectic week, and the news that Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux are splitting up might have put a damper on your weekend. But, if like many people you have Monday off, hopefully you can sit back and enjo…
By Rachel Simon

This Timeline Of Justin Theroux & Jennifer Aniston's Relationship Will Break Your Heart All Over Again

Just one day after Valentine's Day, actors Jennifer Aniston and Justin Theroux announced their breakup after seven years together. The celebrity couple, who were married for two-and-half years, separated quietly at the end of last year. This week, th…
By Priscilla Totiyapungprasert

19 Things Your Parents Told You Were Illegal In The '90s

Kids say — and think — the darnedest things. We have overactive imaginations, adults like to mess with us, and we don't always understand everything we hear. That's why some kids call strawberries "straw babies" — a boo-boo so adorable, you don't eve…
By Megan Grant

Why Uggs Are Never Going Away, Whether You Like Them Or Not

Uggs. The word alone can conjure up memories of teenage years, regrettable outfits, and undeniable comfort. But if, like me, you thought that you've already said goodbye to those fleece-lined tan boots, you can think again. It seems fashion has adopt…
By Lauren Sharkey

I Never Want To Write This Essay Again

I don't know where you were when you heard about Wednesday's high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. I don't know what you were doing, or how you tried to process the news. I do know this: you thought to yourself, not again. And yet, again. Of cou…
By Jenny Hollander

Netflix's New Romantic Movie Will Have You Crying Like It's 'The Fault In Our Stars'

Cancer movies are a heartbreaking staple of Hollywood and have been for decades. It's almost a law of nature: new year, new cancer movie. This year, it's Netflix's Irreplaceable You, a heartbreaking original about a longtime couple who get thrown for…
By Olivia Truffaut-Wong

A Study Suggests Drinking Soda Can Affect Your Fertility — But Don’t Freak Out Just Yet

An awful lot of things can affect fecundability — that is, the probability of conceiving within a single menstrual cycle — but can soda really decrease your chances of getting pregnant? A new study suggests that it might, although it turns out that t…
By Lucia Peters

Here Are All The Terms You Need To Know If You’re Watching Olympic Ski Events Right Now

Every four years the Winter Olympics rolls around to remind me that A) there are so many important Winter Olympic sports, and B) I know virtually nothing any of them. And I know for a fact, I'm not alone, I bet most people don't know what the differe…
By Danielle Colin-Thome

Money Actually CAN Buy Happiness — And Science Figured Out Exactly How Much It Costs

You’ve probably heard the saying “Money can’t buy happiness.” Personally, I’d be more than willing to test out that hypothesis myself, but researchers at Purdue University beat me to it. Researchers found that there is an actual amount of money it ta…
By Katie Mitchell

Kate Middleton Made Sales Of This $1 Secret Accessory Spike & She'll Turn You Into A Believer

There's a royal epidemic going on, people. It's one that causes any and everyone to obsess over the royal family's wardrobe and beauty routines, even if it means breaking the bank to look like them. So a frenzy was expected when Kate Middleton report…
By Summer Arlexis

Adam Rippon and Mirai Nagasu Have Matching Tattoos & The Story Is So Cute

Olympic season gives people the feels. From those shipping Canadian ice dancing pair Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir to Shaun White's gold medal win on Tuesday, the feels are real. Now, there's another reason to get all up in your emotions. Adam Rippon a…
By Shea Simmons

A New Study Says Being In A Relationship Could Change Your Taste In Wine — Here's How

I’d be willing to bet that for many of you, a nice bottle of wine is awaiting you in your near future — and if you’re planning on sharing that bottle with a partner, there might be more to your choice than meets the eye: According to recent research,…
By Lucia Peters

Carrie Brownstein On Why Even The Obama Era Should Have Enraged You

An icy January morning soon after Hollywood's show of solidarity for the #MeToo movement at the Golden Globes and almost exactly one year into the Trump Administration feels like a momentous time to be sitting across from Carrie Brownstein. The Sleat…
By Samantha Rollins

Here’s What The Upcoming Year Of The Dog Means For Your Chinese Zodiac Sign

On Feb. 16 the world will celebrate the Chinese New Year, welcoming the Year of the Dog in like the good doggo it is — we hope. A new year means new zodiac predictions for the 365 days ahead. So, what does the Year of the Dog mean for your Chinese zo…
By Brittany Bennett

7 Signs You're Ready To Get Into A Relationship, According To Experts

It can be difficult to tell when you're ready to start dating again. Maybe you're coming off of a bad breakup, maybe you've just been focused on other things. And, ironically, one of the signs that you're ready to be in a relationship is that you're …
By Lea Rose Emery

I Got A Breast Reduction & It Was About So Much More Than The Size Of My Boobs

As a young teenager, I pretty much reached peak physical maturity overnight. One day I was wearing my first training bra a la Lizzie McGuire, and the next I was sweatily fumbling around a Victoria’s Secret with 32DD boobs, trying to summon up the cou…
By Sierra Taylor Horton

This Is, Hands Down, The *Grossest* Thing Babies Do Inside The Womb

Your baby's life in the womb may be safe and warm, but it's also kind of grody. Seriously, the whole process of growing into a human being includes more than a few icky moments along the way. But this is the grossest thing babies do inside the womb b…
via Romper

The 15 Best Fiction Books Of February Feature Tons Of Extraordinary Women

When the cold winds of February blow in, there's nothing I want more than to hide under my covers with a good book. Luckily, there's more than a few fantastic new fiction books coming out this month, so the only tough decision you'll have to make is …
By Melissa Ragsdale

These 10 Drugstore Red Lipsticks Are Under $10 & Actually *Amazing*

I adore makeup. There are few things I like more than getting myself fancied up in the mornings. It's a little ritual I get to do every day that makes me feel prettier and more put together. When my makeup is on, I'm ready to face the world — pun int…
via Romper

17 Moms Reveal The Most Disgusting Part Of Their Pregnancy

Pregnant bodies do weird-ass things. Weird-ass, gross things. I mean, my pregnant body did (twice), and I have long-suspected I'm not alone. So I asked other moms to share the most disgusting part of their pregnancy and I learned that, not only am I …
via Romper