Title: We Set the Dark on Fire
Author: Tehlor Kay Mejia
Genre: Young Adult
Page Count: 384
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Notable Notables: Latinx characters and WLW romance
Recommended Readers: Gosh, everyone!
I was recommended to read this by a friend just in time for Pride month, and I was so incredibly blown away by it!
We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia is one of those rare YA books that is set in a fictional land, but there’s no real magic or sci-fi/fantasy elements to speak of. Rather, it mirrors our own world and the issues we face—particularly those of Latinx people in the context of American immigration—but at a more dystopian-level. Though, I regret to say, this dystopia and the current state of America is almost on the exact same wavelength. That’s…worrisome and depressing.
Our story follows Daniela “Dani” Vargas in the fictional island country of Medio. A myth about the sun god selecting two wives for his own, making the sea god and his people their eternal enemy, is the basis for Medio’s rampant political corruption and class divide. Dani’s parents once risked everything to cross the wall dividing the two islands and acquire forged identification papers so Dani could enroll at the Medio School for Girls. Now, she is graduating as the top Primera in her class, destined to run her future husband’s household and guaranteed a life of luxury.
The night before her graduation, however, she is found by a member of resistance group La Voz and blackmailed to spy on her husband, Mateo, who is on the path to become Medio’s next president and is the worst thing for the lower classes to achieve equality. To make matters worse, she is paired with a Segunda named Carmen who she’s had bad blood with since arriving at the school. The Segunda is responsible for producing and raising her husband’s children, but Carmen might be the person who undoes Dani for good—either because she will uncover Dani’s role as a spy or because there’s more to her than Dani ever dreamed, igniting feelings she’s forbidden to have.
Yeah, it’s gay.
I’ve seen some people compare this book to The Handmaid’s Tale, but honestly… It’s so much better. For one, again, it’s gay. For another, it doesn’t piss me off to read. And when I say that, I don’t mean “piss me off but in a Feminist way.” Rather, it’s in a “this is such a contrived piece of work because misogyny is the only thing making this book dystopian and I just hate reading it” way. Finally, it’s better because it’s not yet another white narrative on the subject. Latinx characters and culture are interwoven throughout the narrative, building an intriguing world even though we’re only seeing a small portion of it.
The legend of the sun and sea gods and the whole belief that two wives in a three-person marriage is the ideal family structure is as bogus as it sounds—and Dani, our protagonist, knows that. She knows this is all an excuse to keep the rich and powerful right where they are and to keep the poor on their knees, starving. Not once do I have to listen to a wide-eyed sheep spouting why this whole marriage thing is necessary. Dani acts like the ideal Primera she’s supposed to be on the outside, but inside, she delivers a running commentary with some very un-Primera thoughts. She recognizes the misogyny but also sees how it’s contributing to political, economical, and social problems within the country, making the world feel more real and complex as a result.
In short, I love Dani. I love this “one-hundred shades of a girl.” She’s absolutely amazing. Her view on the world is what first grasped my attention, but what kept me reading was her struggling with herself while she tried to keep her perfect Primera image together. Should she continue to honor her parents’ sacrifice and live the life of comfort and safety they wanted for her? Or should she risk it all to help the rebellion and make a difference? Because people are dying, people are starving, and she remembers how terrible it all was.
With Dani’s POV, Mejia demonstrates how masterfully she can get many things across using as few words as possible. Every word on the page is deliberate and beautifully written, whether it’s to convey tension between characters, Dani’s swirling and shrewd thoughts, or rapid action. There isn’t a single moment where I am bored or lost, her craft is that precise yet full of rich imagery. The fact that this is a debut novel stuns me; it’s that amazing. It’s that same talent that makes reading any character an enjoyable experience, even if I didn’t particularly like them.
For instance, there was a chance that I would’ve liked Dani’s husband Mateo, just because I love me a good villain, but he quickly proves to be the most insufferable person. It’s not hard at all to root for Dani in everything she does against him, even if it’s just small things like challenging him in his own home. He is properly menacing at times, though, I’ll give him that, and there’s a lot about him I still don’t know and am worried about. Mejia definitely wrote a good, despicable villain, even if I don’t find him a compelling one. Besides, his entire family is cutthroat, so that’s always great to experience.
And then there’s Carmen.
Ah, Carmen. I developed my theories about her, and I was delighted to be proven right on one of them. Watching her and Dani interact is an absolute treat, but I definitely need to know what’s going on in her head. Since Dani’s is the only POV, you naturally learn all the ins and outs of who she is and where she comes from, but with Carmen, all we have is her word—which can be false—and her actions—which can be interpreted as meaning so many things. Who is Carmen, really? I must know, and I’m hoping to find out in the next book.
Other things I’ll mention that I like: Sota, my MVP; Alex; the caterpillar scene; the tailor scene; and every single marketplace shenanigan. I love it all, from start to finish.
I can’t wait to see how much deeper into the spy role Dani goes and what becomes of her and Carmen and Mateo, but what I’m ready for most of all is learning how the conflict between the sun and sea gods really went and to see how much of it has been twisted for unfair gain.
Is it 2020 yet, uuuuggghhh.