Title: We Set the Dark On Fire
Author: Tehlor Kay Mejia
Genre: YA dystopia — but not the kind you’re used to
Describe it in a sentence: A young woman has been primed to be a “Primera,” or “first wife,” to a man in a world upheld by bigamist marriages and extreme inequality (and some pretty creative mythologies)
TV/movie character who would like it: The women in The Handmaid’s Tale would definitely feel solidarity to Dani’s problems.
In preparation for Refinery29’s YA Month, I’ve been reading a lot of YA. A lot. And I’ve enjoyed a lot of them. But among them all, We Set the Dark on Fire by debut novelist Tehlor Kay Mejia stands out for its timeliness, its stunning prose, and its absolutely new/creative/wonderful world.
Dani was never supposed to get to where she was: At the Primera graduation ceremony, about to be married off to the son of an incredibly powerful family. Years ago, her parents illegally crossed over to Medio, the affluent half of the island, making their daughter’s social ascent possible. So, Dani holds a secret. It will be the first of many.
Dani is married off to Mateo Garcia, poised to be the next President of their country. As a Primera, Dani is supposed to be his partner and intellectual equal. But his soul and body will be nourished by his Segunda wife – Carmen. Of all the wives, Dani didn’t want it to be Carmen. They were sworn enemies. Now, Dani is locked in this cold (but fancy AF) environment. Mateo is like a mini power hungry Commander Fred of The Handmaid’s Tale. He squashes all input from Dani. Her role is to be helpful and supportive. What is she going to do if he rejects all her advances? Well, Mateo knows what he wants her to do: Clean, clean, clean some more. Not quite what she envisioned for herself back at school. But since she’s a Primera, she’s supposed to remain placid, keep her composure.
Of course, Mateo’s so busy being a teenage man about town he doesn’t realize what else is happening right under his nose. Dani and Carmen realize their friction may have come from another source. Not hate, but fascination. Not hate, but looove. Yes! There are some terrific moments of intimacy, punctuating the bleak conditions of Medio. As with my favorite books, there are sprinklings of attraction that remind us why we’re on the planet.
There’s also the other factor moving the book’s plot forward. The revolution. They’ve tapped Dani. She’ll have to sacrifice her safety to be a part of something bigger than herself.
Mejia has tapped into something special with this book. It’s politically relevant, yet, but also emotionally potent. I was cheering Dani on. She’s not invulnerable, not completely brave all the time like so many YA protagonists in dystopias are. She has to become brave, because no one else is looking out for her in this cold, unequal world. TOO REAL!
I’m really looking forward to seeing how she expands the world in the next book. Unlike adult dystopias, there’s a glimpse of hope at the end of this book. Dani might be all right. Medio might be, too.