The island of Medio is a nation divided—geographically, politically, and socially. A wall severs the island in two, sealing off the toxic sea from a toxic society. The wall is a weapon as much as it is a barrier: The Medio ruling elite use it to enforce their power and disenfranchise everyone else. Those unlucky enough to be born on the sea-facing side risk everything to sneak across. A life spent being undocumented and tormented by bloodthirsty police on the “right” side of the wall is still better the hopelessness, starvation, and despair on the “wrong” side.
This is the world of Daniela Vargas. With forged papers, her undocumented parents got her into the Medio School for Girls. There she was trained as a Primera and waited for a wealthy family to select her as a wife for their son. In Medio, each wealthy man has two wives: a Primera who acts as a partner and uses her wisdom and stoicism to move the family up the social hierarchy, and a Segunda who offers romance and whimsy to occupy her husband’s emotions. Before graduation, Dani is blackmailed by Sota, a boy from rebel group La Voz, into spying on her fiancé. For years the government has been at war with the revolutionaries. Anyone even suspected of associating with La Voz are packed off to prison camps, but lately prisoners have been disappearing between capture and imprisonment. And Dani’s connection with her soon-to-be husband makes her perfectly placed to help the guerilla fighters—whether she wants to or not.
In the beginning, We Set the Dark on Fire feels deceptively simple, almost easy. While the setting is unusual, the premise is well-worn and the characters seem to be more trope than personality. But once Daniela and Carmen meet their shared husband, Mateo Garcia, at his compound, it’s as if Tehlor Kay Mejia pulls her finger out of the dam and lets the flood waters rush in. In truth, there is nothing slight or simplistic about what Mejia has to say here. This is not an “it’s interesting despite the easily recognizable elements” scenario. Instead, Mejia manipulates the reader by luring them in with the familiar and then twisting everything into the feverishly unexpected.
During Daniela’s difficult, degrading marriage, she undergoes two metamorphoses simultaneously. In the beginning, I think a lot of readers will make the assumption that our protagonist is straight (we’re trained to assume whiteness and cis-heteronormativity as the default), but it quickly becomes apparent that she’s increasingly attracted to another girl in her social orbit. Romance and secrets, lust and betrayals—the two girls experience so much in such a short amount of time. I can’t tell you how much it meant to me as a queer woman of color to read a story where a brown girl discovers herself without the entire novel revolving around coming out or turning into a ‘kill your gays’ situation. Her queerness is part of her identity and effects the story in significant ways, but her queerness isn’t the plot itself.
Layered into this is the dynamic and complicated experience of female friendship within a male-dominated society. The patriarchy forces women into competition and insists on a binary: the virgin and the whore, or—in the case of Medio—the Primera and the Segunda. It’s Segundas who are expected to fulfill their husband’s sexual desires and bear children while Primeras remain chaste, modest, and unencumbered by emotions. The Primera complements her husband and the Segunda pleases him and no one cares what the women think about the whole arrangement.
When Dani finds herself sharing a household with a cold and callous husband and her childhood frenemy, she fears the worst. But few experiences bring women together more effectively than shared trauma at the hands of a man. Dani thinks her mean-spirited and untrustworthy, but Carmen is too complex to be defined merely as a flighty, flirty Segunda. She sees the world for what it is, what it could be, and what it will have to become until the dream is achieved.
Daniela’s second evolution is her shift in perspective on the rebels. As Primera-in-training, she is all too aware of the sacrifices her parents made to give her a better life. But what does “better” mean when it requires loss, brutality, and oppression? Finding Daniela a place within the system is the best her parents could hope for, but through her reluctant work with La Voz she learns that the system isn’t inexorable, ordained by los dios or not.
Teen readers—especially those from marginalized communities—need more stories like We Set the Dark on Fire. We adults need to show them that they don’t have to settle for what’s always been done. Not everyone is ready or willing to stand on the front lines and fight toe to toe, but everyone can do their part to dismantle an unjust system. We the targeted, we the marginalized, we the minorities who outnumber the majority, we have the power to change the world. We don’t need to wait for those in charge to relinquish control; we can work to take it for ourselves.
Countless novels have been written about dystopian worlds where the patriarchy melds with fascism, sparking violent rebellions in response. Winks and nudges toward The Handmaid’s Tale and Nineteen Eighty-Four abound in this story, but Mejia fills her dystopia with queer romance, female friendship, and Latinx influences and cultural nods, setting it apart.
We Set the Dark on Fire is dystopian YA as you’ve only dreamed it could be. Tehlor Kay Mejia’s story is specific yet universal, intricate and vast; it’s fire and smoke and the phoenix rising from the ashes. This is a powerful, personal novel, and Mejia is a fierce writer with a sharp eye for subtlety. I read the whole thing in two sittings, not because it was a quick read but because I just couldn’t put it down. With a debut like this, I can’t frakking wait to see where Mejia will go next—and I can guarantee that I’ll be there for every single book.
We Set the Dark on Fire is available from Katherine Tegen Books.
Alex Brown is a high school librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.