We Set The Dark On Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

From that day forward, for each of the Sun God’s faithful servants, there would be two wives to serve him as the Sun God’s wives did him. At birth, the women of the island would be destined: One touched on her brow by Constancia for her wise and discerning nature, her quick wit and loyalty. The other would be kissed on her brow by the Moon Goddess for her beauty and bravery, for her nurturing warmth and the passion that lurked beneath. They would be named Primera, for his first wife, and Segunda, for his second.

For as long as she can remember, Daniela Vargas has guarded a desperate secret: she is from beyond the border wall. An impostor at the prestigious Medio School for Girls, Dani has trained harder, fought harder than any other girl in her class… and her hard work has paid off. As the top standing Primera candidate of her age, Dani is so close to achieving her goal: being selected as the first wife of a rising political husband, and becoming one of the most powerful, respected women in Medio. Never mind that she’s rabble from the outside of Medio’s safe borders, or that her citizenship papers are forgeries—her family risked everything to give Dani the chance at a life they could never have, and she will never forget that sacrifice even if it means she lives the rest of her life in fear of being discovered.

On the eve of her marriage ceremony, however, all of Daniela’s carefully laid plans are cast asunder when a routine raid happens at the school, forcing the girls’ papers to be scrutinized. That’s when Dani meets Sota—an agent working for the rebel group La Voz, bent on destroying the status quo. Sota presents Dani with a choice: work for him as a spy in exchange for newly forged papers, or lose everything. Of course, Dani accepts the bargain, and in so doing finds herself embroiled in the rebels’ plot. Her marriage ceremony goes off without a hitch and she finds herself in the enviable position as Primera of Mateo Garcia—the son of the President’s chief military strategist, with a bright future ahead of him—alongside beautiful and mysterious Segunda, Carmen Santos (with whom Dani has a complicated relationship, having been bullied by her in school).

Everything is just as Dani has always dreamed… except, it’s not.

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Try as Dani might to establish herself as an equal and legitimate partner to Mateo, she finds he is cruel and disinterested in taking her advice. Too, Carmen is always around, watching her, unsettling Dani with her lingering stares (and the confusing feelings stirred up by those stares). To make matters worse, there’s the problem of Sota, who arrives in disguise at the Garcia household, once again demanding Dani aid his cause lest he expose her true origins.

Dani is torn—does she save herself and maintain her facade as a good Primera? Or does she yearn for more? Justice for herself and her people, a future with the beguiling Carmen, a Medio that is so much more than the pit of terror and hatred that it has become?

The debut novel from Tehlor Kay Mejia, We Set The Dark On Fire boasts a timely, if dishearteningly familiar, dystopian premise: a world with a wall built to keep those outsiders and have-nots out, yet even within the walls the stratification of wealth is even more pronounced. Those who protest the wall and the corruption of the presidency start with peaceful means, but soon are met with violence and grimly plan retaliation. It’s impossible not to draw parallels with the real world and current political situation from Mejia’s fictional Medio—but that’s not a bad thing. While there’s little subtlety or metaphor to Mejia’s wall, confronting injustices, corruption, and intolerance through YA fiction is a powerful means for sparking conversation and thought, especially when it comes to teens trying to find their voice and power to resist in a broken system.

On that front, one of the most powerful aspects of the story is Dani’s transition from impostor, to spy-by-blackmail, to impassioned resistance member. She begins the story as a self-focused teen, trying desperately to rise as high as she can because of her parents’ sacrifice, though she has many, many doubts about her future as a Primera and yearns for the freedom and love she had beyond the wall. Dani begins the story wanting to live up to the dreams of her parents; by the end of it, after the horrors she has seen first-hand thanks to her husband Mateo and the cruel cycle of power in Medio, Dani wants to fight for the oppressed and powerless. She becomes a full-blown rebel and a spy in earnest—and that, dear readers, is a truly powerful character arc.

We Set the Dark On Fire is also, unfortunately, a YA dystopia that relies very heavily on tropes—in particular, the forbidden romance. In Mejia’s version, the love story that blossoms is not between Dani and Sota or Dani and Mateo (thank goodness, this also could have been a nauseating love triangle)—instead, it develops between Dani and Carmen. I love the idea of these two women falling in love with each other instead of their abusive asshole husband… but as with so many dystopian YA novels, my problem is with the fact that these girls fall desperately head over heels in love for no apparent reason at all. Sure, there’s physical attraction on Dani’s side to Carmen’s tawny skin and curves, and a long time obsessing about almost-kisses and hand-holding, but there’s actually very little in terms of mental or emotional connection that would account for the huge potential life-ending gambles each girl takes in the name of love. The other unfortunate side effect of the dreaded instalove is the melodramatic prose that so often accompanies these types of storylines (though to be fair, the purplish descriptors are present in many other facets of the story as well).

At the end of the day, I want to continue Dani’s story, and I want her rebellion to succeed. I want the wall to be torn down, and for the corrupt to have their powers stripped away and given back with the people of this fantasy world. I’ll be back for the next book.

In Book Smugglerish, 6 hand-illustrated tarot cards out of 10.