Tehlor Kay Mejia’s “thrilling and timely” YA debut wasn’t written with timeliness in mind.
“I wrote this book as full-on fiction,” says Mejia, author of We Set the Dark on Fire, a daring fantasy that features a bold, queer Latinx heroine. “I wrote the first draft four years ago, so there was no Trump yet, there was no border wall [controversy] yet.
“There were obviously many struggles in immigrant communities that have been going on for a long time,” she says by phone from her home in Ashland, Oregon, “but in terms of on-the-nose political content—there’s a wall that people are crossing, the government is mad at them for it—it caught up with the book, which has been a surreal experience.”
17-year-old Daniela “Dani” Vargas’ life has been a series of surrealities. She left her family, her friends, her village, to attend the Medio School for Girls, a tony institution that trains wives-to-be for the island nation’s political elite. Tradition accords each privileged young man two: a shrewd Primera, to assist in business, and a passionate Segunda, to bring pleasure.
Dani is a Primera, first in her class. On the eve of graduation, she witnesses an anti-government protest by resistance organization La Voz.
“For the first time in her life, Dani awaited the arrival of the military police with something other than terror,” Mejia writes. “She wanted them to come. To disperse the protest so she could go back to doing what they all did best—pretending Medio was prospering and peaceful. Pretending there was nothing but infertile ground and ocean beyond the looming border wall that kept their island nation divided in half.”
An agent of La Voz visits Dani that night, entreating her to spy on soon-to-be husband Mateo Garcia, the arrogant and ambitious son of the country’s ruthless military leader. Sota hopes the greater good will motivate her compliance, but, if not, he’s willing to divulge a dangerous secret from her past that could compromise her gilded future.
“Dani is a stubborn person, and she’s had to be to protect herself in this world with this big secret,” Mejia says. “She could have ended up stuck in her ways, but she’s willing to open her eyes, and that’s my favorite thing about her. Just because something has been her experience for her whole life doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right. She’s willing to evolve her beliefs and change when she realizes she’s wrong, which is something a lot of people have a hard time with.”
In a world where whom you trust can be a matter of life or death, Dani’s first challenge is whether she can reveal her feelings for Segunda Carmen Santos, the haughty young woman who shares her husband (and some old grievances). “An action-packed third-person narrative, smart dialogue, and lush descriptions offer readers a fresh and steely heroine in a contemporary coming-of-age story,” Kirkus’ reviewer writes.
“I hope readers take from it that you don’t necessarily have to be a special person who already has power or agency in your life to effect change in your own world,” Mejia says. “Dani isn’t a chosen person. She doesn’t have a magic weapon, physical prowess, or much privilege or currency when the story starts. I hope people look at her and think, Even if I feel downtrodden and oppressed, I can still find a way to do my part. I can find the skills I have to help move things forward.”Megan Labrise is a staff writer and co-host of the Kirkus podcast, Fully Booked.