When the Revolution Comes Home: Tehlor Kay Mejia’s We Unleash the Merciless Storm

Carmen Santos is on the run. She is no longer the Segunda to one of the most powerful men in Medio, and she hasn’t been an active guerilla fighter for La Voz since she was embedded in the Medio School for Girls as a child. As she makes her way back to La Buitre and his freedom fighters, she hopes to reintegrate back into her crew. The rest of La Voz has other ideas. Distrusted and isolated, Carmen struggles to prove her worth to the only family she has left. Making matters worse is Ari, a hot tempered interloper who has weaseled his way into a second in command role. He’s up to something, but finding out what drives a wedge between her and her friends, her and El Buitre, her and La Voz.

Desperate to protect Daniela from Mateo Garcia’s soldiers and Ari’s wrath, Carmen embarks on a treacherous journey back to the capital. Everyone wants her dead and will do everything they can to stop her before she reached Dani. Torn between the woman she loves, the life she left behind, the family who saved her, and the cause she’s risked everything for, Carmen’s actions will either redefine the revolution or shatter it. And she may not be able to choose which.

At first, We Unleash the Merciless Storm felt wholly different from We Set the Dark on Fire. The pacing is slower and the tone harder, much of that due to the shift in character POV. Carmen isn’t as naive or ambitious as Daniela, nor is she as flirty and flighty as she was when she was Mateo Garcia’s Segunda. Readers who liked the seductive version of Carmen must come to terms with this angrier and more calculated version. The conflicts Carmen encounters are largely concerned with internal guerilla politics and aren’t quite as thrilling as the conspiracies Dani was forced to untangle.

Carmen isn’t the only character who has changed from book to book. Dani isn’t the wide-eyed girl who was dragged kicking and screaming into a revolution she didn’t fully understand. Although Carmen is the main character of We Unleash the Merciless Storm and much of our perspective on Dani is through Carmen’s eyes, Tehlor Kay Mejia lets Dani have enough space for her own small arc. She changed a great deal in We Set the Dark on Fire, changed again during her separation from the woman she loves, and changes yet again as they work together to free Medio and break free of La Voz.

But the more I mulled it over, the more the parallels between the two novels became more evident. Daniela believes her world to be right, although she recognizes the inequities and violence that set the foundation for Medio. Likewise, Carmen believes with her whole being in La Voz even as she sees the ineffectiveness of their tactics and the fragility of their leadership. La Voz and Medio are cultures rooted in inflexible traditions that demand absolute compliance and submission by its members; rejection or refusal is met with execution or exile. Through Carmen and Sota, Dani learns to see the cracks in the walls of Medio and the possibilities that lay just on the other side. While working as a sleeper agent Carmen also got a peek at a different life, one that made her realize everything she thought she knew might be wrong, or at least incomplete.

Both girls challenge the arrogant, cowardly, and selfish men who failed upward into power and who would spite the nose on their face in order to keep it. And in that challenge Dani and Carmen come to understand that neither side is entirely right or entirely wrong. Revolution is messy but it doesn’t have to be cruel or heedless. A rebellion cannot be won without suffering, but what kind of nation can you hope to build when rebels are turned into cannon fodder and chess pieces? Mejia offers no concrete answers because there are none, or none that will satisfy everyone equally. The answer is yes and no, both and neither, right and wrong, why and why not. The only thing we know for certain is that we must act in a way we believe to be just. A revolution cannot be won only on blood and bullets, and whatever is left after the fight is over cannot stand on a grave of lies and greed.

In book talks to teens, I often shorthand We Set the Dark on Fire as a Latinx Handmaid’s Tale but better and more queer. But with We Unleash the Merciless Storm as its complement, I think that comparison doesn’t do the series justice. Tehlor Kay Mejia is interested in bigger, more intersectional issues than Margaret Atwood ever was. The two novels together force readers to confront our expectations for the world and what we’ll do to secure them. She’s written a powerful series that defies the tropes of dystopian young adult fiction. Carmen and Dani’s story will haunt me for a long time.

We Unleash the Merciless Storm is available from Katherine Tegan Books.

Alex Brown is a teen services 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.

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