We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Key Mejia
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?
If you’re in to YA Dystopias you can’t miss We Set the Dark on Fire. It’s exactly what you might expect it to be and completely lived up to the hype.
My favorite thing about this book was that Mejia took the time to build a world with a religion, mythology, and culture that matched her premise. Unlike so many of this genre, the plot and the setting unfolded perfectly in-sync with the fable related at the beginning of the book. Which, incidentally, was the best part of the book, and I was so sad that there weren’t more interspersed throughout. The structure of the polygamy while decidedly unrealistic nevertheless worked and made sense. Nothing felt contrived, which is key for this genre.
I also loved the Latinx culture that permeated every aspect of the novel. You felt as you were reading that you were lounging on a patio in Cuba, enjoying the sunshine and sea breeze. The food was especially mouthwatering, and this is from someone who doesn’t usually care about food writing in novels.
Dani is pretty much exactly what we expect from this genre. A reluctant revolutionary acting first out of her own self-interest and then later because she comes to realize it’s the right thing to do. She is feisty and determined, but has a cold and calculating edge that sets her apart from other dystopian heroines. Everything is planned and purposeful.
The romance was lovely. While I would have liked to see the girls getting to know each other a little better before falling in love, their chemistry was indisputable. And everything is intensified by the fact that it’s forbidden on so many levels. In addition to the fact that they’re married to a man, Dani has been raised, trained not to feel at all, and ESPECIALLY to block out feelings of attraction or “lust”. So her sexual awakening was even more intense. I also appreciated that Mejia talked about how amazing kissing is, that maybe you don’t need *more* right away because kissing itself is pretty awesome.
My biggest critique of this book is honestly more a critique of the genre, which is that it’s difficult to balance revolution with drama. The drama is what makes this book feel fun and juicy, while the revolution is what gives it big heart. It usually ends up being heavy on the drama side. This book in particular doesn’t give enough details about the life of the Primera and the “viper nest” she is navigating, nor her relationship with her terrifying husband. In general the book wasn’t as dark as I was expecting it to be.
Where We Set the Dark on Fire really stands out from the dystopian crowd is with the relevance and believability of the revolution. The people are truly suffering in this novel, often from police and military brutality, while the rich feast. You feel the desperation of the characters, especially Dani, to just survive. I was reminded of Cuba in the 50s, though the revolutionaries were definitely more peaceful in this book!
I highly recommend this book to fans of The Crown and/or The Hunger Games. (Though it is more similar to The Crown in terms of tone). Great fun, can’t wait to find out what happens to Dani and Carmen.