Title: We Set the Dark on Fire
Author: Tehlor Kay Mejia
Genres: Dystopian/Post-Apocalyptic, Fantasy, LGBTQIA
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Review Copy: Purchased
Availability: Available now
Summary: At the Medio School for Girls, distinguished young women are trained for one of two roles in their polarized society. Depending on her specialization, a graduate will one day run a husband’s household or raise his children, but both are promised a life of comfort and luxury, far from the frequent political uprisings of the lower class. Daniela Vargas is the school’s top student, but her bright future depends upon no one discovering her darkest secret—that her pedigree is a lie. Her parents sacrificed everything to obtain forged identification papers so Dani could rise above her station. Now that her marriage to an important politico’s son is fast approaching, she must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society, where famine and poverty rule supreme.
On her graduation night, Dani seems to be in the clear, despite the surprises that unfold. But nothing prepares her for all the difficult choices she must make, especially when she is asked to spy for a resistance group desperately fighting to bring equality to Medio. Will Dani cling to the privilege her parents fought to win for her, or to give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio—and a chance at a forbidden love?
Review: (Note: This book includes scenes of sexual menacing and violence against civilian populations.)
It’s such a joy when a book lives up to—and then exceeds—your hopes for it. I absolutely loved WE SET THE DARK ON FIRE. Tehlor Kay Mejia’s debut novel tackles many timely themes, including the wealth gap between rich and poor, immigration, and the question of how much you’re willing to risk in order to take action for a more equitable future.
Dani, our heroine, is on the brink of getting everything her parents ever wanted for her. Her parents made huge sacrifices for her so she could live a life of privilege, and Dani is acutely aware of the fact that all their lives are at risk if it’s ever found out that her identification papers are fake. Her struggle to balance her and her family’s safety against the growing day-to-day realities of her terrible husband and the oppressive Medio’s government feels very real. Mejia gave Dani’s emotional journey genuine weight, and I understood and appreciated (even if I didn’t always agree with) all the moves she did and did not choose to make. Dani’s emotional journey from blackmailed informant to actual revolutionary was a one of the best plots in the book.
For all the world of Medio is based on a mythology about warring gods and two wives, it is still painfully familiar. We might not have a system of assigning sister wives to wealthy men, but modern-day culture is no stranger to sharply defined gender roles, the privileged hoarding their wealth and power at human and environmental cost, and a number of Medio’s other corrupt foundational characteristics. I also appreciated the dialog around the resistance group La Voz and what they did and did not feel were acceptable tactics for trying to create a more just and equal world: spies, blackmail, non-violent protest/demonstrations, and actual violence. Their actions, in addition to Sota and Dani’s evolving relationship, aren’t easily sorted into good or bad categories, and I appreciated that complexity.
Perhaps the true highlight for me was the romance that developed between Dani and Carmen. Rivals-to-lovers is a romance trope staple for a reason, and with Dani and Carmen, Mejia gives us one of the better examples I’ve seen recently in young adult fiction. Dani slowly becoming intrigued by her husband’s other wife and reevaluating her own thoughts and feelings toward Carmen after several years of training to rein in her emotions was very nicely done.
Recommendation: Buy it now if you like dystopian world building and all the ways politics big and small affect people’s lives. Tehlor Kay Mejia’s debut novel is a compelling exploration of privilege, rebellion, falling in love, and discovering what you’re willing to sacrifice for ideas bigger than yourself. The characters were engaging and the romance was one of the best I’ve read recently. You won’t be disappointed.
Interview with Tehlor Kay Mejia – We Set the Dark on Fire at Rich in Color