What: We Set the Dark on Fire (We Set the Dark on Fire #1) by Tehlor Kay Mejia
Who: Katherine Tegen Books
When: February 26th 2019
How: A copy of this novel was provided by Katherine Tegen Books for review via Edelweiss.
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?
We Set the Dark on Fire is a story about Dani, a queer Latina living in Medio, a place where women are forced into one of two roles – Primera, a cold, calculating woman who makes logical decisions to better her husband’s social standing and future; and Segunda, a pretty, seductive piece of arm candy who will eventually bear her husband’s child. Dani is a Primera, and excels at seeing things without her emotions affecting her outlook or decision making at all. At least, that’s how she works on the outside. Because we, as readers privy to Dani’s internal thoughts and feelings, know that most of the time Dani is faking it. Dani feels a lot more than she should, and despite her Primera education she does let her emotions affect her and her decisions.
Dani was an interesting character to read about because she’s supposed to be this cold iceberg of a girl but she really isn’t. She can pretend all she wants to her teachers and to the people she’s supposed to impress, but deep down she doesn’t really gel with all aspects of being a Primera. Which, of course, is perfectly normal since no one is just logical just as no one is just emotional. But these are the only two things a woman can be in Medio, ever since their main god married a human woman and a goddess and those were, apparently, their respective personalities. To then pass those personalities on, forcibly, to women for generation after generation is pretty heinous, and to be honest I’m surprised it has lasted so long in Medio. But Medio is pretty corrupt so I suppose that may have something to do with it.
Along with boxing women into ancient stereotypes and forcing them into marriage with men they’ve never met before, Medio is also rife with classism and poverty. There are different levels to the city, and there’s also a city wall. If you live outside the city wall you’re no better than dirt on the bottom of a shoe and you’re certainly not allowed inside the walls because of some prejudiced reason that the rich people in the upper rings have. If you’re born in the lower rings of the city you’re not much better than those outside, and you’re forced to live constantly on alert. Dani is from the less desired ring of the city, only able to attend school because of forged identity papers, and if anyone were to find out then her prestigious education would mean nothing, and she’d probably end up back where she started, or worse.
Dani’s entire world comes crumbling down when it turns out someone does know about her forged identity papers, and blackmails her into helping them with their revolution to end the way things are in Medio, with the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer – and killed. At the beginning, Dani is pissed. She doesn’t want to be blackmailed, she wants to live the live she was promised by her education. But when that life fails to be all that was promised, and when she evaluates what’s right and wrong, she starts to change. Her actions become less driven by blackmail, and more driven by the fact that she wants to spark change. It was great to see Dani change over the course of this novel – to go from being scared and only doing things to save her own social standing to doing things because she believes in the cause.
Another thing that changes in Dani’s life is her falling in love. And not with her horrible, spoiled husband. But with her husband’s Segunda. Personally, I would have liked some more development of this love because they did start off as enemies, and I don’t believe a few scattered conversations are enough to erase their past and form a friendship that turns into something more. That being said, I did like the two of them together, and I was certainly rooting for them. Their relationship was something soft in a world of hard edges, and it really felt like that when I was reading it.
We Set the Dark on Fire was a novel that drew many connections to the real world, and it really makes you take a step back and think about what you can do to make a change, just like Dani. I highly recommend We Set the Dark on Fire for anyone looking for an #ownvoices queer Latina book that is all about fighting for what’s right in a world that will try its hardest to make that feel impossible.
© 2019, Chiara @ Books for a Delicate Eternity. All rights reserved.
trigger warning forced marriage, reference to poverty, murder, explosions, fire, reference to abduction, attempted murder, classism, use of ableist language, bullying
forced marriage, reference to poverty, murder, explosions, fire, reference to abduction, attempted murder, classism, use of ableist language, bullying