We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia
Title: We Set the Dark on Fire
Author:Tehlor Kay Mejia
Genre: YA Fantasy
Topics: LGBTQ, Revolution, Family
Triggers: Some violence
Publisher: Katherine Tegen Books
Publishing Year: 2019
Format Read: Hardcover (Library)
My Rating: 3.5/5
We Set the Dark on Fire is an updated Latinx and LGBTQ take on the YA dystopian fighting-the-power story. Fans of series like the Hunger Games or Divergent will find much to love in this fast paced, nail biting story of resistance, love and power. However Tehlor Kay Mejia, does not simply give a Latinx makeover to the same old story. She also explores contemporary intersectional social topics through her fantasy story in nuanced and thought-provoking ways. For example Kay Mejia explores the role of religion and educational institutions in maintaining structures of power, the use of walls and official papers to distinguish and divide people, and the responsibilities of those who have “made it” in an oppressive society. This read is a must for the social and politically engaged YA reader.
Summary: 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?
There are two things in particular that I loved about We Set the Dark on Fire. The first was Kay Mejia’s skill at tackling complex current social and political issues in the context of her fantasy world. We Set the Dark on Fire is set on Medio, an island where society is separated by a literal wall into the affluent and elite highlanders and the impoverished coastal residents. Residents of the impoverished class lack the identification papers that the elite residents of Medio have afford them the powers to participate in civic life and wield economic and political power. The parallels to the current immigration discussion in the US are hard to miss, and indeed Kay Mejia does not shy away from strong political discussions through her characters. Kay Mejia explores how religion and institutions can contribute to maintaining structures of power by both providing a ‘moral’ framework for why power structures should be maintained and by teaching new generations to accept and perpetuate these structures. For example the young debutants are taught to take pride in a system that ultimately gives them some power as wives for rich men but also ultimately oppresses them. Kay Mejia also touches upon the concepts of passing and of the responsibility of members of an oppressed group who have ‘made it’ to those who have not, something that will directly speak to readers whose family members have made sacrifices to afford them opportunities that their own families might not have had.
Kay Mejia is unapologetic in her political views, at the same time, she does not oversimplify the issues she tackles. She presents us with various character’s moral struggles within Medio’s power hierarchy as they are pulled between what they believe is best for their country, themselves and their families. Dani’s transformation from model pupil and wife to agent of the rebellion is marked with doubt about her allegiance to the sacrifice her parents made to allow her to climb Medio’s social ladder, and to the cause that she ultimately ends up believing in and working for. This results in not only well rounded and layered characters but also plenty to think about for the reader as well.
The one aspect that I wished we had more time to explore was the romantic storyline. Personally I love the ironic twist on the much maligned YA love triangle and am a fan of the ‘enermies to lovers’ trope but I felt that it was a bit rushed for me to fully believe suspend disbelief in how quickly the relationship changed from bitter rivals to love interests. Even the characters themselves remark on how quickly their relationship has progressed. This speed is used to illustrate how precarious trust can be in a world where everything is political and is used as a plot point to bring about the book’s cliffhanger ending. While I get this from a technical perspective, emotionally I would have been happier if the relationship had the time to develop more slowly into the next book of the duology. That said I am eager to see where the relationship with lead in the next book.
The second aspect that I particularly loved about this book was Kay Mejia’s world building. Generally in fantasy (more so in high/adult fantasy but it still common in YA) the world building is built on a europeanish/britishish/medivalish aesthetic. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with writing a medieval european based fantasy story. I am very much a fantasy nerd and definitely love a lot of these books myself. However, when most of these books are based on the same cultural cues it is easy to think that this is all the genre is or should be. This at best is creatively stifling and at worst reinforces the perception that only Angle-centric narratives are valid. This is why I am particularly passionate about promoting and reading Latinx genre fiction. We Set the Dark on Fire does such an excellent job of hispanic-based fantasy world building. The world building feels initially jarring only in the sense that readers including myself are unused to seeing tortillas and chiles instead of stews and porridges and names like Martinez instead of Anderson in a fantasy setting. The overall effect is a delightful and triumphant example of what fantasy can be if we, like Dani, decide to challenge the status quo.
Read if you like:
The Handmaids Tale
Joining the #resistance