We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

Title: We Set the Dark on Fire
Author: Tehlor Kay Mejia
Series: We Set the Dark on Fire, #1
Pages: 384
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Release Date: February 26th 2019

      “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. Both paths promise 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 pedigree is a lie. She must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society.
      And school couldn’t prepare her for the difficult choices she must make after graduation, 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 will she give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio—and a chance at a forbidden love?”

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“You’re a hundred shades of a girl. You hold those shadows and bring them to life when you need them, and they’re flawless. Look how far you’ve risen, how many people you’ve fooled.”

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.

★★★★

(4/5)

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Snapshot Review: Starfish by Akemi Dawn Bowman

Title: Starfish
Author: Akemi Dawn Bowman
Series: N/A
Pages: 340
Publisher: Simon Pulse
Release Date: September 26th 2017

TW: emotional and sexual abuse, ableist language, and a suicide attempt.

      “Kiko Himura has always had a hard time saying exactly what she’s thinking. With a mother who makes her feel unremarkable and a half-Japanese heritage she doesn’t quite understand, Kiko prefers to keep her head down, certain that once she makes it into her dream art school, Prism, her real life will begin.
      But then Kiko doesn’t get into Prism, at the same time her abusive uncle moves back in with her family. So when she receives an invitation from her childhood friend to leave her small town and tour art schools on the west coast, Kiko jumps at the opportunity in spite of the anxieties and fears that attempt to hold her back. And now that she is finally free to be her own person outside the constricting walls of her home life, Kiko learns life-changing truths about herself, her past, and how to be brave.

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“It feels like two comets have just collided headfirst into each other, and the aftershock of two hundred earthquakes rolls through my chest.”

  • Biracial IdentityStarfish focuses on Kiki, a biracial teen with a Japanese father and white mother. The novel touches on how Kiki feels caught between two worlds, but not wholly a part of either. It also addresses how different she feels and how racism has affected the way she sees herself.
  • Social anxiety rep – Kiki deals with social anxiety which includes panic attacks. This affects many of her relationships.
  • The MC saves herself – There were a few times when I thought the author was going to take the story in a certain direction, but was pleasantly surprised that Bowman emphasized how important it was for Kiki to save herself instead of letting someone else care for her.
  • Balance between romance and personal arcs – While I did enjoy the romance storyline in this one (it was very sweet seeing Kiki reconnect with her childhood crush), I loved that both characters felt like they struggled with their own things. While Kiki is dealing with trying to find a way out of her mother’s house, Jamie is dealing with the collapse of his parents’ marriage.
  • Kiki’s relationship with a mentor – Kiki has not had the best relationship with the adults in her life. Her mother is emotionally abusive and her father is absent. It was so nice to read a YA book where the most important relationship in a character’s life becomes her connection with an adult character. Kiki ends up being mentored by a local artist and I love how supportive he and his whole family becomes.

  • Equating abuse with mental illness – While I do think it’s important to show teen characters who grow up with abusive parents and showing these teens learning how to break away from that, I wish the book could have separated this from the mother’s mental health issues. Her treatment of her daughter is consistently blamed on her not seeing a therapist for mental health reasons.

  • Akemi Dawn Bowman’s Starfish is one of the most emotional books I’ve ever read and this is due to how well Kiki is written. She’s a fully fleshed-out MC that you can’t help but sympathize with. Starfish is a powerful read that will not be easily forgotten by this reader.

★★★★
(4/5)

Snapshot Review: The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

Title: The Girl in the Tower
Author: Katherine Arden
Series: Winternight Trilogy, #2
Pages: 633
Publisher: Del Rey
Release Date: December 5th 2017

      “The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.
      Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.”

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“Morozko stilled beneath her glance. This was not the frost-demon, this was his other, older self, black-cloaked, pale, long-fingered.  He was here for the dead. Suddenly the sunlight seemed muted. She felt his presence in the blood on the earth, in the touch of the cold air on his face, old and still and strong.”

  • Vasya – Vasya continues to be a character who I admire. She is brave in a world that isn’t kind to young women who want the freedom to determine their own fate.
  • The writing – Katherine Arden once again dazzles with her writing. I’m continually impressed with her ability to weave several smaller tales while also telling a much bigger story.
  • Sibling relationships – As Vasya is reunited with both her older brother Sasha and older sister Olga, we see how their relationships have shifted. Though they may have tolerated her high-spirited behavior when she was a child, they see a real danger in the wild woman she has grown up to be.
  • Magical elements – Vasya has been labeled a witch by many because of her ability to see these creatures from old. I loved this part of the world-building in this series so much and though the novel is rooted in the “real world”, it is these glimpses that has always captivated me.

  • Pacing – There were times where the story felt like it dragged a little. I know I should have expected it because much like the first novel, Arden slowly unravel her story. Her set-up is very deliberate, but can make me as a reader feel impatient.
  • More Morozko – I wish we had more scenes with the frost-demon, though I understand why Arden wrote him in such an enigmatic way.

  • Fans of Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale will continue to be impressed with The Girl in the Tower. If you enjoy novels that combine historical fiction and fantasy, this is a series that should be high on your TBR.

★★★★
(4/5)

Snapshot Review: Suffer the Children by Craig DiLouie

Snapshot reviews are a new format I am trying out here at A Kernel of Nonsense that helps both me the reviewer get straight to the point and you the reader find out if a book is for you without having to read a longer review.

Title: Suffer the Children
Author: Craig DiLouie
Series: N/A
Pages: 343
Publisher: Gallery/Permuted Press
Release Date: May 20th 2014

**I received a free copy of this book from the author which does not influence my review**

Trigger Warning: death of children, suicide, and sexual assault.

      “From an acclaimed horror writer, a chilling tale of blood-hungry children who rise from the dead in this innovative spin on apocalyptic vampire fiction.
      Suffer the Children presents a terrifying tale of apocalyptic fiction, as readers are introduced to Herod’s Syndrome, a devastating illness that suddenly and swiftly kills all young children across the globe. Soon, they return from the grave…and ask for blood. And with blood, they stop being dead. They continue to remain the children they once were…but only for a short time, as they need more blood to live. The average human body holds ten pints of blood, so the inevitable question for parents everywhere becomes: How far would you go to bring your child back?”

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“A massive roar of grief and rage washed over the crowd. One after another, the children went limp in their parents’ arms. The father who’d shouted at the camera howled and tore at his clothes while his wife screamed.”

  • The set-up – Much of Suffer the Children is devoted to getting to know four adult characters and their relationship to their children. There is the devoted stay-at-home mom Joan, her blue-collar-working husband Doug, single-mom Ramona, and pediatrician David, who lost a child years ago.
  • The surprise character arcs – Based on the synopsis, I expected the focus to be on the children and how they change after coming back from the dead, but DiLouie instead stays with the adult characters and takes readers on a journey of grief that ultimately leads in desperation.
  • Aftermath of Herod’s syndrome – The story doesn’t shy away from the devastation that follows: the collecting of bodies, grief that manifests itself in self-destructive behavior, and how easily the characters resort to violence to achieve their goal.
  • The real horror – While children dying all over the world is a horrifying and then them coming back from the dead with a need for blood is terrifying, the real horror of this story are the parents who find out just how far they are willing to go to have a one more day with their children.

  • My own expectations – I went into this thinking it was going to be more about the kids and how creepy it would be for them to be walking around needing blood, so was a tad disappointed that it took so long for this to come about.

  • Craig DiLouie’s Suffer the Children is unlike any vampire novel I’ve come across and the behavior exhibited by the adult characters is as terrifying as it is plausible.

★★★
(3/5)

ARC Review: The Last 8 by Laura Pohl

Title: The Last 8
Author: Laura Pohl
Series: The Last 8, #1
Pages: 384
Publisher: Sourcebooks Fire
Release Date: March 5th 2019
**I received an eARC of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review**

      “Clover Martinez has always been a survivor, which is the only reason she isn’t among the dead when aliens invade and destroy Earth as she knows it.
      When Clover hears an inexplicable radio message, she’s shocked to learn there are other survivors—and that they’re all at the former Area 51. When she arrives, she’s greeted by a band of misfits who call themselves The Last Teenagers on Earth.
      Only they aren’t the ragtag group of heroes Clover was expecting. The group seems more interested in hiding than fighting back, and Clover starts to wonder if she was better off alone. But then she finds a hidden spaceship, and she doesn’t know what to believe…or who to trust.”

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Laura Pohl’s debut, The Last 8, is an edge-of-your-seat, sci-fi adventure that will delight readers with its likable cast. Clover Martinez was dreaming about MIT and working for NASA the day the aliens arrived on earth. It takes less than a week for the aliens to decimate her town, leaving Clover as the only survivor. With no way to contact other survivors, Clover embarks on a cross-country road trip. But with each passing day, Clover begins to believe she might be the only one left on earth and it gets harder and harder to keep going. Then everything changes when she hears a voice on the radio, calling for anyone who might still be alive to come join them. Clover is not alone. When she makes it to Area 51, she find a group of teens hiding out, oblivious to just how dire their circumstances are. Clover isn’t one to just give up and so she makes it her mission to convince them to fight back. When the group discovers what the aliens are really after, they have a chance to stop the destruction of their planet but at a great cost to the tight-knit family they’ve created for themselves. No matter what they decides to do, nothing will ever go back to normal.

Clover is my kind of protagonist. When disaster strikes, she’s calm and calculating. She doesn’t let her emotions get the best of her and I loved that despite the losses she suffers, there’s that part of her that still wants a chance to live and thrive. Clover is also one of the few aromantic lead characters I’ve come across. There is a really important secondary storyline where Clover talks about learning that she isn’t romantically attracted to anyone. I loved that an aro character got to be MC in a science-fiction novel as most aro and/or ace characters appear in contemporary novels. Though Clover is a self-sufficient kind of character, the kind I’m immediately drawn to, I loved seeing her discover that the bonds she makes with the other survivors are also important when it comes to facing the end of the world. She goes from “I don’t need anyone” (which is probably true) to “I don’t need anyone, but these people have become my friends and I’d rather face the apocalypse with them by my side.”

The supporting cast of The Last 8 is one of the highlights of the novel and my only criticism is that we don’t get a chance to spend more time with them. Brooklyn runs the Apocalypse Radio Station and is an absolute ray of sunshine. She brings a level of humor that is vital in any end of the world scenario. I really wanted to see more of her relationship with Avani, the group’s genius scientist. There is a lot of romantic tension between the two and I really wanted to know what happened or didn’t happen between them in the past. Flint is incredibly nerdy and would have loved more scenes with him. Rayen is the epitome of badass and is probably the one character besides Clover that I’d want on my apocalypse team. Adam reminds Clover of her ex-boyfriend and is the first person she opens up to when she arrives. Violet is the official leader of the group. She’s hard and defensive because she believes she has to be in order to keep this group alive. I really liked her interactions with Clover as the two are really mirror images of one another. Andy has been by Violet’s side from the beginning and her hacker skills have come in handy with all the information Area 51 carries.

The Last 8 is at its core a novel about friendship and how strong these bonds can be. It’s about teens making mistakes and just trying to survive in a world that counted them out. If you like fun, end-of-the-world kind of stories, Laura Pohl’s debut needs to be on your radar. TW: suicidal thoughts, suicide.

★★★★
(4/5)

ARC Review: Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera

Title: Dealing in Dreams
Author: Lilliam Rivera
Series: N/A
Pages: 336
Publisher: Simon Schuster Books for Young Readers
Release Date: March 5th 2019
**I received a copy of this book through NetGalley which does not influence my review**

      “At night, Las Mal Criadas own these streets.
      Nalah leads the fiercest all-girl crew in Mega City. That roles brings with it violent throw downs and access to the hottest boydega clubs, but the sixteen-year-old grows weary of the life. Her dream is to get off the streets and make a home in the exclusive Mega Towers, in which only a chosen few get to live. To make it to the Mega towers, Nalah must prove her loyalty to the city’s benevolent founder and cross the border in a search for a mysterious gang the Ashé Ryders. Led by a reluctant guide, Nalah battles other crews and her own doubts, but the closer she gets to her goal, the more she loses sight of everything—and everyone— she cares about.
      Nalah must do the unspeakable to get what she wants—a place to call home. But is a home just where you live? Or who you choose to protect?”

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Lilliam Rivera’s Dealing in Dreams exhibits impressive world-building, but left me wanting more in terms of characters. In Mega City, violence rules the streets. Nalah, known as Chief Rocka, and her crew, Las Mal Criadas, patrol the streets, keeping the people in check and enjoy the occasional spoils at the local clubs known as boydegas. For Nalah, the ultimate goal is to find a place next to Mega City’s leader Déesse, to live in the Mega Towers, where the privileged live in luxury. When an outsider threatens everything Mega City stands for, Las Mal Criadas venture to Cemi Territory, to infiltrate a crew that supposedly disbanded years ago. But on the outside, Chief Rocka faces unexpected challenges and discovers her beloved city may not be the perfect utopia she’s been led to believe.

Lilliam Rivera’s world held a surprise at every turn. The ruler of Mega City, Déesse, is from a line of women who helped rebuild the city after a devastating earthquake. But it wasn’t only buildings that were reconstructed, society itself was reimagined. Mega City became a matriarchy; women rule over men and men are expected to defer to women. This was such an interesting concept to explore. Men’s bodies were exploited in a way that we see women’s and women no longer had to worry about their bodies seen as sexual objects. Young girls are recruited and taught how to fight. If they survive training, they have a chance to join a five-member gang and prove their worth to Déesse. Toilers are the lowest class, producing goods, but never able to climb the social ladder. Money no longer has value, instead people trade for goods and sueño tabs, a drug meant to help ease people into sleep every night, but one that is incredibly addictive. This is the one part of the world-building that I wanted to see more of. Nalah has a rule where none of her girls are allowed to take sueño tabs, so we rarely get a peek at what this pills truly does.

I love how dedicated Nalah is to her crew. She’s a natural leader, not because she is the toughest or the smartest, but because she knows her team. She understands who each member is, what their limits are, and how to deal with each of them. I wish we had gotten to know every member of Las Mal Criadas more. Nalah’s right-hand woman, Truck, is the most clearly conceived. She’s a hothead, who will always pull back her fist first when trying to take care of a problem. The young Nena, who is still learning the ropes, falters more than she succeeds. The other girls haven’t quite accepted her as a member as they are still processing the loss of their former crew member who died at the hands of another crew. Shi and Smiley, the other two members of the gang, did not have much page-time and aside from Nalah’s narration describing who they are, we really don’t get to know either.

Dealing in Dreams has one of the most unique dystopian worlds I’ve read and even though I wanted more character exploration, the inverse world is one I wouldn’t mind spending more time in.

★★★
(3/5)