Book Review: GIRLS OF STORM AND SHADOW by Natasha Ngan

Girls of Storm and Shadow leaves behind the setting, stakes, and everything great about the first book to wander a half-baked fantasy world. A shallow, directionless middle book: pure filler.

Book Cover: Girls of Paper and Fire


In this mesmerizing sequel to the New York Times bestselling Girls of Paper and Fire, Lei and Wren have escaped their oppressive lives in the Hidden Palace, but soon learn that freedom comes with a terrible cost.

Lei, the naive country girl who became a royal courtesan, is now known as the Moonchosen, the commoner who managed to do what no one else could. But slaying the cruel Demon King wasn’t the end of the plan—it’s just the beginning. Now Lei and her warrior love Wren must travel the kingdom to gain support from the far-flung rebel clans. The journey is made even more treacherous thanks to a heavy bounty on Lei’s head, as well as insidious doubts that threaten to tear Lei and Wren apart from within.

Meanwhile, an evil plot to eliminate the rebel uprising is taking shape, fueled by dark magic and vengeance. Will Lei succeed in her quest to overthrow the monarchy and protect her love for Wren, or will she fall victim to the sinister magic that seeks to destroy her?

Maybe some stories shouldn’t be trilogies.

In my review of Girls of Paper and Fire, I mentioned thinking the story might have been better as a standalone fantasy. The sequel has confirmed my doubts.

Girls of Paper and Fire had big ideas and real emotional depth. It’s not an insult to say that everything the book was going for could have been accomplished in a single volume. In fact, I would have way more respect for a storyteller with enough confidence in the work to let it stand alone.

But this is YA, and every fantasy has to be an epic, sprawling trilogy ending in the overthrow of government and death of a thousand minor characters. *bangs head on the desk*

(Although, having said that, I have read a few very strong YA SFF standalones recently. The Grace Year (dystopian), Rules for Vanishing (horror), and The Lady Rogue (historical fantasy) all covered a lot of ground in a single volume. None of them, though, were the kind of high fantasy that typically gets a full series.)

Why doesn’t Girls of Storm and Shadow work as a series installment?

From a nuts-and-bolts writing perspective, I think the problems come down to stakes.

  • As the reader, I never found a reason to care about the ill-defined “mission.” After a while, we learn that Lei and friends will spend the book collecting allies for the war to come. It’s like watching a cooking show, but the entire episode is the cook finding ingredients in her cupboard, measuring them into the little bowls, and setting out utensils. There’s a reason cooking shows do all that off-camera; it’s not what we came for. This book never pretends to be anything except filler between the first and last installments.
  • Nothing happening is personal to Lei. Lei is invested in Wren, but that’s about it. She’s just along for the ride. Not only is she a passive protagonist, but she has no actual investment in what’s happening around her, except as far as it affects her relationship with Wren. Everything that happened in Girls of Paper and Fire was intensely personal for Lei. Even when she was passive, it was still her story.
  • Lastly, [and this is a vague spoiler] almost all the moving parts in this book are new to us. The book carries very few characters and settings over from the first book, so we aren’t already invested. There are character deaths, but it was easy to tell from the beginning which characters were created just so they could be killed off. Those aren’t real stakes–in the end, little changes from the first book.

I’ve seen some reviews that complain that “nothing happens” in Girls of Storm and Shadow. They’re right–very little happens in this 400 page book–but that’s not quite the problem. Remember: not much happens in Paper and Fire either. Huge chunks of the first book are just “Other girls are called. Lei waits to be called herself. The girls hang out and wait.” But in the first book, I was still on the edge of my seat, because there was genuine suspense in those slow chapters of waiting. I was holding my breath, knowing that something huge was just around the corner. I was scared for Lei, curious about Wren, and desperate to know what would happen.

In Girls of Storm and Shadow, there’s no suspense. There’s no feeling that something awful is just around the corner. There’s no sense of actual danger. Instead, we settle into a mind-numbing pattern: We travel to a new location. We hear how amazing Lei is. A bad guy monologues. We see the gang “narrowly escape” danger. We talk more about how great Lei is.

There was no suspense or dread or excitement keeping me turning pages. Just the desire to get through the book so I could write this review and move on.

Lei in this book

Girls of Storm and Shadow is missing many of the strong elements of the first book.

Almost everything about Girls of Paper and Fire that worked for me is gone in the second book.

The setting was unique and fascinating. Ngan did a wonderful job putting the reader in the world of the Paper Girls. This tiny community of girls, living in this strange blend of luxury and horror, status and oppression, each responding to trauma in different ways, forming friendships and enmity and sometimes love… it’s what drew many readers.

Out of the palace, the book flounders. Ngan was never that interested in the broader world building. That was fine in the first book, when we were focused on a micro-scale that put character front and center. But now that Lei and friends are traveling the nation, the lack of depth in the world shows.

Girls of Paper and Fire was embraced by many readers as a story, first and foremost, about a sexual assault survivor. It had a lot to say about sex, love, abuse, hate, and the bodies of young women.

The second book isn’t about any of that.

So what IS Girls of Storm and Shadow about?

Mostly, it’s about war being terrible.

Which… okay? Yes, it is? But that’s not much of a book?

Lei spends the book wondering if the people fighting against the evil dictator might also be bad. Anyone who has read any fantasy/dystopian YA before knows the answer to that on page one.

The only thing the book has resembling a plot is Lei’s journey witnessing violence and her changing views on war, so it’s a problem that there isn’t much depth there. It’s hard to see exactly what Lei’s objection is. She clearly distinguishes between combatant and civilian, and has no problem with the Good Guys mowing down rows of faceless enemy soldiers. It’s not loss of life that concerns her. Mostly, she has a problem that Good Guys die, even the one who are combatants that knowingly sacrifice themselves to the cause. Early on, she’s shocked that leaders would “value the mission over their friends” and… yeah, Lei. It’s called a battle. You know this. Later, when Lei witnesses actual war crimes, it’s hard to take her outrage seriously. She never bought into the war in the first place.

The book wants us to believe that Lei is just so astoundingly special that she alone can see the true terrible nature of war. She’s just so compassionate, so empathetic, so gold-eyed and moon-chosen, so immediately great at fighting and traveling and understanding group dynamics…

Honestly, that’s really what the book is about. That’s what it spends the most time on: Showing us that everyone thinks Lei is amazing.

I tried for a while to justify giving Girls of Storm and Shadow three stars.

I really wanted to! There are a couple flashes of brilliance in this book. Several chapters take us out of Lei’s (suffocating) POV and show us what’s happening with characters from the first book. Those moments were wonderful. In particular, I was thrilled to see a chapter follow Aoki and give her an ounce of validity at last.

In the end, though, the book doesn’t justify its existence. I look at this book and just want to ask what are you for??

Thank you to Jimmy Patterson Books for providing an advance review copy of this title. No money changed hands for this review and all opinions are my own.

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