Title: We Set the Dark on Fire
Author: Tehlor Kay Mejia
Series: We Set the Dark on Fire, #1
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Release Date: February 26th 2019
Tehlor Kay Mejia’s debut, We Set the Dark on Fire, is an empowering dystopian fantasy with real-world correlations about classism and immigration. Daniela Vargas has done everything in her power to hide that she was born on the wrong side of the island of Medio. She’s risen above her station and is on the verge of fulfilling all the dreams her parents have had for her. As a graduate from the Medio School for Girls, Dani will become one of two wives to a son of one of Medio’s most powerful political families. Just when it becomes certain that her secret will unravel all her well-laid plans, she’s thrown a lifeline by an operative of the notorious revolutionary group La Voz. In exchange for their aid, Dani will have to become a spy in her new husband’s household, but Mateo Garcia isn’t just the son of a powerful father, he has direct influence over the policies that have kept people like Dani in poverty. Further complicating matters are Dani’s growing feelings for her husband’s other wife Carmen. When Dani sees first hand how ruthless the government can be, she must decide if she’s willing to fight for a safer future for everyone by standing in direct opposition to her husband. But if he discovers her deception, she won’t live long enough to see such a future.
There are so many intricate details to the world-building in this one, every element felt so deliberate and added something unique to the narrative. We Set the Dark on Fire opens with Medio mythology, weaving a story of two brother Gods and the jealousy that tore them apart. It’s a story that ends with the island of Medio being separated by a wall, where one class of people is allowed to flourish, while the other is condemned to a life of poverty. It’s the origin of Medio’s matrimonial tradition of raising a select group of girls to be married off to the most eligible and rich bachelors. Dani has been groomed to be a Primera, the wife meant to be her husband’s equal in intelligence and power. Carmen is a Segunda, the more nurturing of the pair, meant to provide her husband with a warm home and children. This mythology becomes a justification for people like Mateo Garcia to see people seeking a better life as law-breakers, groups like La Voz calling for equality as dangerous, and anyone sympathetic to these people as traitors. In this world, morality is not black and white. Those in opposition to rebel groups like La Voz believe they have more of a claim to liberty and prosperity, and they will do everything in their power to keep the population fearful. Those on the resistance side have tried to keep their protests peaceful, but their people are starving, are being thrown in prison, and when change refuses to happen, you’re left with little choice but extremes.
I loved how different Dani and Carmen were as characters as they were raised to take on certain roles. As a Primera, Dani has been taught to value her stoicism, to not give anything away, to observe before acting. Carmen on the other hand has been raised a Segunda, known for their passion and enthusiasm. Watching their relationship develop was such a treat. At first, every interaction and every word is fraught with animosity, but slowly their exchanges become charged with tension and an undeniable attraction. I loved Dani’s personal story arc as a young woman hoping to make the best of her circumstances. Her parents’ dream has become her own goal, even though she might have been happier living a simpler life. She carries their dreams on her shoulders and when she is given an opportunity to do more with her life, to fight for those not as fortunate as herself, she has to decide not only to give up the comforts of her new life, but also risk the dreams her parents had for her. I really wish we got a couple of chapters from Carmen’s perspective. With the way this one ends, it feels like we’ve only scratched the surface of who this young woman is.
We Set the Dark on Fire is like no other dystopian fantasy that I’ve read. I loved that it centers Latinx culture, features two complex Latina characters, and that their romance is given center-stage despite the patriarchal setting.