“Fear is good. It means you care. And caring is its own kind of magic.”
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?
DISCLAIMER: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
EXPECTED NOVEMBER 5, 2019
CW: sexual assault, graphic injury, gore (including eye gore), violence, loss of a loved one, animal death, implied child abuse, nudity, child death, addiction, self-harm, slavery
Last year, Girls of Paper and Fire rocketed up to the top of my list of favorites, earning its place there with no questions asked. It was stunning and sapphic and full of so much promise for the fight to come, and I couldn’t help but fall in love.
Unfortunately, Girls of Storm and Shadow has not quite lived up to expectations in the same way. While far from being an outright terrible book, it falls heavily into the trap of second book syndrome, existing not so much as a book in its own right, but as a set-up for the third book in the series. On the one hand, this suggests to me that the final book is going to be downright EXPLOSIVE, and I’m all right with that! On the other, though, it’s meant that Girls of Storm and Shadow was lacking in the meantime, which is quite the disappointment.
Above all else, Girls of Storm and Shadow is a travel novel. Most of the book is spent with Lei, Wren, and their small group of allies traveling to different corners of Ikhara in an effort to secure support against the Demon King and his forces. Each place they travel to, while well-crafted and vivid, also means a cookie-cutter procession: arrive, seek allies, flee for the group’s safety in an effort to reach the next destination before death catches up. Doing this once or twice wouldn’t be too bad, especially if a different chain of events separated things, but it happens repeatedly, taking away some of the excitement and suspense and turning it into “here we go again” instead.
I also found that Girls of Storm and Shadow lacks the unfolding of relationships that made Girls of Paper and Fire such a hit for me. Lei and Wren do have further growing to do as their own characters and as a couple (and truthfully, I appreciated the tension between them, because it’s a big world outside the confines of the palace, and there are high stakes at hand), but the side characters didn’t quite do it for me. Nitta alone, I think, held my attention, partly because she still has something of a shrouded past, and partly because her relationships with the rest of the party are reasonably clear. With Nitta, you know where everyone stands. Merrin, Bo, Hiro, and Caen, though, felt more like props than characters sometimes, though Bo at least grew in a way that turned him from slightly irritating comic relief to genuinely lovable supporting character with a knack for providing levity when it’s most needed.
All things considered, we’ll be seeing more of these characters (and a few others) in the next book, so their development isn’t done. However, looking at Girls of Storm and Shadow on its own, I think there was something lacking, especially in the way certain relationships changed on a dime.
That said, Girls of Storm and Shadow also has its merits, and I stand by them wholeheartedly! For one, Natasha Ngan continues to have such outstanding prose, bringing her world and characters to life with words that flow so easily but must have been so hard. Even better, though, she digs her teeth into bigger themes and doesn’t let go. Not only do Lei and Wren have to grapple with the abuse heaped on them during their time as Paper Girls, especially the sexual abuse endured at the hands of the Demon King, but they also have to consider how far is too far to go for the sake of a good cause, whether the ends can justify the means. It means nothing is simple, and sometimes, the choices they face are between two evils, with little way around it. And in dealing with these topics, particularly the trauma that’s associated with rape, Natasha Ngan has a touch that’s both gentle and respectful, never shying away from the horror of the situation, but simultaneously refraining from becoming too graphic and from downplaying any of the many emotions felt in response.
I also have so much appreciation for the increased diversity presented in Girls of Storm and Shadow. Not only is it wonderful to have two QWOC at the forefront, but at least five other queer characters are confirmed, four male characters and one female character. That said, there has yet to be any trans rep so far, and I’d really like to see that change in the next book (or perhaps in the finished copy of this book, who knows).
And like I mentioned earlier, while this book suffers somewhat from pushing so many story threads into place now in order to amplify the payoff later, I have to admit that I admire the direction this seems to be going. There are going to be questions of power, especially questions about how to distribute power fairly, ESPECIALLY questions of how to do so when faced with varied interests that cannot always be dealt with at once, and I look forward to seeing how the discussions of right versus wrong and end versus means tie into that.
I’m also invested in the hints of rebellion we catch glimpses of during the brief chapters not told from Lei’s perspective. The rebellion runs deeper than anticipated, with more important players than expected, and it’s going to come to a whole host of victories (and prices to pay).
At the end of the day, I still have a deep love for this series, and I’ve still placed a preorder for Girls of Storm and Shadow (which has a neat preorder campaign, if you haven’t heard)! It releases on November 5th, just a couple weeks away, and I have to give it a recommendation despite my problems with it. A series that starts strong and promises to finish strong can hold my attention, even when there’s a bit of lag to the middle of it all. Plus, I want to be sure Lei and Wren get the happy endings they deserve, so you can count on me sticking through to the end!