BookBrowse Reviews We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Mejia

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We Set the Dark on Fire

by Tehlor Mejia

We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Mejia X
We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Mejia
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2019, 384 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2020, 384 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Erin Szczechowski
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An action-packed dystopian novel with a slow-burning queer romance, We Set the Dark on Fire offers an allegorical critique of American society.

On the island of Medio, a wall separates the wealthy elite from those less fortunate who lack the resources needed to survive. Drawing on the mythology of the land, the men in Medio marry two women—a Primera and a Segunda—who are each trained to be perfect wives in complementary ways. Primeras are wise and loyal, while Segundas are beautiful and passionate. 17-year-old Daniela "Dani" Vargas is at the top of the Primera class at the Medio School for Girls, where she has spent long years training to make a good wife to a powerful, wealthy husband, and avoiding Carmen, her former friend turned enemy. However, despite being the model student, Dani harbors a dangerous secret – she was born outside the wall, and her papers have been forged. When a new security system threatens to reveal Dani's past, she is forced to accept new papers from the rebel resistance group, La Voz. Shortly thereafter, she and Carmen are married to one of the wealthiest, most powerful men in the country – the cruel and calculating Mateo Garcia. Garcia aspires to be the future president of Medio, and hates those outside the wall more than anyone.

When La Voz blackmails Dani, her involvement with the resistance begins to spiral out of her control. The situation comes to a head when one of Dani's former roommates, who is also being coerced into helping La Voz, is captured by the government to be questioned, but disappears before reaching her cell. As Dani starts to realize the extent of Medio's violence towards those outside the wall and her husband's involvement in the political tyranny, she soon finds herself risking death itself to aid the resistance. Meanwhile, tensions in the Garcia household begin to rise, and even though Dani can't bring herself to completely trust Carmen, she finds that the former hatred between them is starting to transform into a growing attraction.

We Set the Dark on Fire offers up an extremely topical look at the current political landscape in the US, most notably because of the wall that surrounds Medio, and the hateful rhetoric used by the elites to describe those trying to get over the wall. Though the setting feels insidiously familiar, Tehlor Kay Mejia's world-building is vibrant and fresh.

Mejia's careful crafting of Dani is unique, mostly because so much of this character's internal monologue stems from her Primera training, which has taught her to be intensely rational, restrained and in control of herself at all times. Of course, as the book progresses, we get to see this unravel: "She'd been a hungry child. A criminal, moments from arrest or death. She'd been a daughter who couldn't do enough to save her parents, and a victim of blackmail, and a girl who dreamed of kissing a Segunda in a sun-filled glade. But until this moment, she'd never been so completely helpless."

Besides her involvement with La Voz, Dani's budding romance with Carmen also contributes to her changing emotional state. While I thought the first half of the romance seemed a bit underdeveloped (mostly because Dani goes from hating Carmen to falling for her quite quickly), it didn't take long for me to start rooting for them. Dani's reserve and control matches well with Carmen's playfulness, and although the reader definitely wants to trust Carmen just as much as Dani does, Carmen's mysterious nature means that there's always an element of delicious tension to the relationship.

With a lush setting, a fast-moving plot, strong social commentary and two powerful Latina women at the forefront, We Set the Dark on Fire offers a distinct Handmaiden's Tale vibe, while still being entirely original.

Reviewed by Erin Szczechowski

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in March 2019, and has been updated for the February 2020 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Young Adult Dystopian Novels

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