Updated: Mar 11
We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia immediately caught my eye with the beautiful cover. I was intrigued by the story too, once I could tear my eyes away from the front of the book.
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 her husband’s household or raise his children, but both wives 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 on 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 give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio — and a chance at a forbidden love?
While Medio is a fictional island, it could easily be a real place in our world. There are strong overtones of a Latinx influence — Spanish words are used throughout the story, the foods are strongly reminiscent of those eaten in Latin America, and when the author describes the cities, I can almost feel myself transported to any city in central America:
“The narrow alleyways between red-and-white stucco buildings. The overcrowded marketplaces, with their bulging baskets of produce and spices and fabrics in every color under the sun. Street musicians gathered on every other corner, little girls in bright skirts spinning in front of them until they were breathless.”
There’s an elaborate myth behind the creation of Medio, both the geography and the setup of society. There’s a wall that separates the outer part of the island from the inner part. The people on the outside of the wall have severely limited access to everything they need to survive, including food and medicine. The wall serves to keep them out, and they aren’t able to cross it without risking their lives, as the border guards shoot to kill. As part of this creation story, the society is set up so that the upper class men have two wives — one to handle the household (the Primera), and one to bear and raise their children (the Segunda).
There are several main characters in the story: Dani, Mateo, and Carmen. There’s other main characters, but I don’t want to give away any important aspects of the story, so I’ll hold off on sharing about them.
Dani is the narrator, so everything is told through the lens of her own experiences. She’s hyper focused on her achievements, since her family has invested their savings into her education as a way to lift her out of the crushing poverty she’d face staying in her hometown of Polvo. Except Dani isn’t really from Polvo. Her papers are forged since her parents snuck over the wall with her when she was four. But once she’s married, that will all be behind her, and all these sacrifices will be worth it, right? Since she doesn’t come from a place of privilege, she sees things differently than her peers who are accustomed to luxury and excess. She’s already conflicted about things, and events that occur only further that conflict. It’s really cool to see how her history and her training collide to create dissonance in her, and how she manages that.
Mateo is the man that Dani is to wed. He’s a character I loved to hate, mainly because he literally had zero in the way of redeeming characteristics. I noted immediately that he was a misogynistic jerk, and my first impression only got stronger as I read further on. He’s basically the personification of everything that’s wrong with Medio, and pushes Dani towards resolving her conflict in a direction that she may not have chosen on her own.
Carmen is another interesting character. She was a thorn in Dani’s side throughout their years at school, and didn’t just disappear after graduation. However, she was even more intriguing for me since she was unpredictable and more of a wild card than any other character in the book. My perception of her changed a lot throughout the story.
There’s themes of injustice, oppression, prejudice, greed, and class discrimination as I’d expect from any book involving a brewing revolution. However, there’s also strong echoes of what’s happening in our own society. It’s easy to judge others from our own position of privilege, but there’s always more than what appears on the surface.
The society of Medio also has strictly polarized gender roles as well, and while the lower classes marry for love, the upper classes marry for status. The polygamous nature of the marriages are intended to create a family unit where the Primera runs the household as a partner with her husband, and the Primera and Segunda are meant to be friendly with each other, although this isn’t always the case. Being gay isn’t unheard of in Medio, but it isn’t acceptable at all in the upper class, and it isn’t always well-received in the lower classes either. I think that’s part of what makes the sapphic romance such an endearing in this book — it’s two women who are risking quite a lot to be intimate with each other. The heart wants what the heart wants, you know?
They say you shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, but in this case, I’m so glad that I did. If I hadn’t, I may not have picked this book up to read the inside cover and find out more about it. It’s incredibly well written, and Dani is the kind of character I couldn’t help but empathize with. She’s torn between two worlds, and I can understand her desire to want to make both worlds a better place. As soon as I had finished reading, I had already applied to see if I could get an ARC of the sequel that’s coming out in March. Okay, I’m lying. I had applied before I even finished reading. That’s how good this story is. So just trust me and read it, okay?
People who have sat around with me while I’m reading, especially when there’s a surprising reveal, a shocking plot twist, or an unexpected event often look up in alarm when I gasp audibly. The gasp factor is directly related to the number of times I audibly gasp during a reading, and there isn't an upper limit.
Gasp Factor: 10
Overall Rating: 5 out of 5 stars