Girls of Storm and Shadow Review: Electric Lesbian Fantasy

Girls of Storm and Shadow is the latest installment of Natasha Ngan’s Young Adult fantasy series. Electric from start to finish, this book asks important questions about truth and power through a kick-ass adventure. The story picks up where Girls of Paper and Fire left off – having attempted to kill the brutal king who kept them imprisoned as his concubines, Lei and Wren escape the palace.

As Ngan herself describes the book, it’s “Asian lesbians against the world.”  They join the rebellion spearheaded by Wren’s father, Kentai Hanno, fighting for revenge as much as justice. To her fellow humans – the Paper Caste, society’s downtrodden – Lei is a hero. As the Moonchosen, she is a symbol of hope. But life for Lei is not straightforward. In the aftermath of sexual violence, and in the middle of a war, she and Wren must fight to keep hold of the love that blossomed between them.

Fantasy has always been a key genre for feminist fiction, a space where women can push back against the confines and cruelties imposed on us in everyday life. And Girls of Storm and Shadow – a book that positively thrums with kill-your-rapist energy – builds on that tradition.

Countless girls around the world have experienced male violence, yet the subject is rarely explored through Young Adult fiction. With Girls of Storm and Shadow, Ngan smashes the silences that have been built around these issues and tells a compelling story of love in the wake of abuse. As their relationship develops, Lei and Wren reclaim their own bodies and desires. Their love, as Lei observes, is empowering in the most meaningful ways.

Although Lei is now a revolutionary hero, she’s a character many a lesbian reader will recognize herself in. There’s the awkwardness of meeting a partner’s parent before she has come out to them, the worry that your girlfriend’s family might be homophobic, and the mountain of insecurities that can arise when you meet her gorgeous, confident ex.

And Lei has bigger problems than dyke drama. As sickness spreads and magic fades, Ikhara is a kingdom in crisis. Whereas in Girls of Paper and Fire Lei and Wren were confined to the palace, in this sequel they have no choice but to visit different provinces to build alliances with the country’s most powerful clans. From the sophisticated Cloud Palace to the lush jungle of the Mersing Archipelago, every new location has the power to grab a reader’s imagination. The clan politics and interspecies dynamics previously hinted at are fleshed out, making Ikhara a fully immersive world.

Ikhara isn’t always an easy place to inhabit. War demands difficult decisions and magic exacts a terrible price. Social inequalities are very much visible in Ngan’s trilogy. The Moon Caste, pure demons, are physically imposing creatures who dominate. As humanoid animals they are immediately recognizable. The Steel Caste falls in the middle, a strange hybrid of demon and person. And humans come last, with women at the very bottom of the pile.

Yet hope is kept alive by the lovable gang of misfits who journey with Lei and Wren. And each fight scene is more compelling than the one before. The last in a long line of powerful assassins, Wren’s skill with a sword is outmatched only by her command of magic. And Lei, under the watchful eye of Shifu Caen, becomes a powerful warrior in her own right. Though dangerous, their mission to bring down the king – and put a stop to all the injustices of his reign – begins to feel possible.

That Girls of Storm and Shadow is so fiercely political is one of its greatest strengths as a novel. For all the challenging and painful themes explored, there is always the promise of a better world.