GENRE: YA Fantasy (Conclusion to trilogy)
LENGTH: 423 pages
Lei is back in the Hidden Palace and Wren at her father's fort. Apart and with their alliances more precarious than ever, the girls prepare for a final face off with the Demon King who has tormented them since their days as Paper Girls. This is the conclusion to the Girls of Paper and Fire trilogy.
Lei and Wren have always been empowering female characters and that, especially in Lei's case, has never been more evident. Lei was captured at the end of the second novel and is a prisoner being used as a political puppet by her nemesis (the Demon King). Despite this she is unbroken. Her spirit to fight and protect those she loves remains as strong and inspiring as ever. Her resilience is why she is a character I care for so much.
Wren, meanwhile, is ever the warrior her father raised her to be. However, she is haunted by her and Lei's parting words. It's both sad but also refreshing to see her in this state. I found myself beginning to doubt my love of Wren as a character a little in the second novel. She seemed to have lost some of her humanity. Seeing her vulnerable (but still kicking butt) made me fall in love with her all over again.
As for the other characters we have the return of the Paper Girls (Blue, Aoki, Zhen, Zhin, and Chenna). Chenna acts as Lei's confidant and I've always found them to play really well off of each other (we love to see women supporting other women). Blue is still her grumpy self and the reader is told more than shown she's softened. Zhen and Zhin are funny but never really have all that much time devoted to them and I could take or leave them. Aoki infuriated me because she had plenty of moments that should have been wake up calls for her but weren't.
Merrin and Caene (Lei's allies from the previous novel) are present but their roles are reduced compared to the previous novel. Nitta (another ally) is paralyzed from an injury sustained in the last novel. I was worried going in how this would be handled. I was happy to see that she was still able to fight and she had her own custom battle chair. She also retained her cheery personality. Lova (yet another ally) was more bearable in this novel compared to the previous. I didn't entirely understand the relationship between her and Nitta. In the second novel we learn that Nitta is an exiled member of Lova's clan and there is a lot of tension between them. In this novel, though, Lova is overly protective of Nitta and the two seem close. I wish we as the readers could have seen what triggered this change.
One of the series' strongest points is the romance between Lei and Wren. Their love for one another is so deep but Ngan doesn't shy away from adding conflict into their story. Even as they are willing to die to protect one another they hold each other accountable and it's what makes their love feel legendary.
The novel is told from the dual perspective of Lei and Wren. Lei's chapters are in first person (as they have always been) while Wren's are in third person (like the multiple characters' perspectives from the previous novel). Given the girls are separated it was a smart idea on Ngan's part to have the dual perspectives. I thought it would be distracting for one to be in first and the other to be in third person. Thankfully, it really wasn't. I assume Ngan did this in order to distinguish between them. This worked because the girls have very distinct personalities.
This series has suffered from some tonal bumps in the road. The first novel is elegant but heavy and the tone is smooth throughout. The second book was messier in execution and it struggled between moments of the characters' PTSD and them cracking jokes about sex. It gave me as the reader whiplash. Here Ngan finally finds balance. There is still humor but it serves to lighten the tone instead of outright shattering it. It's also slightly more mature humor which is nice.
Without giving anything away there is excellent payoff in this novel for a plot point that has been building throughout the series. It's been a sword perched on our characters' necks and the blade finally falls.
Given this series is about a war and this is the final book in the trilogy there are, of course, some pretty epic battle scenes. I found them to be tense and engaging. I don't know that I'd say they're better than those in the second book because those were amazing. I would say they're on par. The death scenes are, with only a single exception, either appropriately satisfying or gut wrenching.
FINAL THOUGHTS I hesitate to recommend a series before its completion. Having finished this one I can wholeheartedly do so. I'd recommend this series to anyone looking for a book with strong female characters, a beautiful LGBT+ romance, and people who enjoy war stories and rich worlds. As a writer myself I recognize how difficult endings can be. This was one of the best endings I've read to date. I think it's likely to leave most readers feeling content (you can't win them all). Lei and Wren will always hold a special place in my heart.
FINAL RATING: 4.5 ⭐️