My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Okay, I am having trouble writing this review because I did really like it, but at the same time, it was just... okay? Not sure how to reconcile this. I'm thinking it's more of a 4? 4.5? star, because I did enjoy reading it, but I'm not at gushing levels of love.
Plot-wise... it's not anything really new. It feels like one of those old-time Chinese (or well, generally East-Asian) royal dramas where you have all the concubines in the palace, some there willingly, most there by force. There's a yearly selection of "Paper Girls", and obviously the one taken there by force stumbles into a plot against the king... Only there's no flying kungfu, except where the demons have bird forms. And since this is a harem story, obviously Angry-I-Hate-The-King protagonist falls in love with someone who is not the king.
Content warnings at this point would be: LGBT romance, sexual abuse, physical abuse. Obviously, the king does not take "no" for an answer, and there's quite a lot of raping and looting going on in the wider world of Ikhara. It's not graphic - which is why I suppose it still fits under YA - but it's not something everyone can stomach. Oh, and if you're against authors killing dogs, you might want to skip Chapter 2.
I think what I quite enjoyed throughout the book was the setting. There's layer after layer of Chinese culture embedded into every scene; no obvious cutting away to "oh, but that feels really White" or "look at me I'm so exotic!" scenes, at least for me. Added bonus: the Chinese half of Ngan's heritage is Malaysian, so I loved the little touches of Malaysiana amidst the very Chinese court setting. Ikhara itself is a land cobbled together by a conquering king, so besides the obvious difference between the castes (Paper - fully human, Moon - fully demon, Steel - humans with some demon features), there's that subtle intermingling of human cultures, with saris alongside kebayas and cheongsams.
Thinking back, this isn't really a book I would have bothered to pick up on my own; I would have found the blurb much too romance-focused, and maybe a little too generic. But Ngan was reading at SRFC in 2019, and there was a Malaysian connection, so I figured I might as well just get a copy and have it signed. heh.
So now, even though I'll likely never read it again or bother to read the sequel, it'll just sit on my shelves because it's signed to me. haha.
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Whoo! I'm caught up on The 2023 Booktempter's TBR reduction challenge, with August's free read.