We Set the Dark On Fire by Tehlor Key Mejia

819wRE-AaMLTitle: 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.

Are You the Most Important Person In the World? Or: The Heavens by Sandra Newman

91mmm8FL3xL.jpgTitle: The Heavens
Author: Sandra Newman
Genre: 
Literary fiction (but the kind you can tear through)
Describe it in a sentence: 
A young woman believes that her dreams — which uniformly take place in Elizabethan England — are actually real; they start having an impact on her life in New York. 
TV/movie character who would like it: Nadia of Russian Doll, who also wakes up in a slightly altered universe every day

Most of the time, I take home books for work, read a few pages, and move on. But The Heavens wrapped its smoky coils around me and kept me inside its enchanting, wildly imaginative story until I found out what would happen (and TBH, I still don’t completely know).

Do you ever wonder what your place in the world is; if it matters? Are you ever pulled between the impulses of thinking you’re insignificant, versus thinking you’re extremely special? Kate feels destined for something. She always has. It’s because of her dreams. Her dreams that seem realer than real life.

Real life, for Kate, takes place in an alternate New York in the year 2000. This is a clean, bright, beautiful city — kind of a liberal’s fever dream. There are no cars! Global warming isn’t even a phrase anyone knows! Kate lives with her wealthy friend in a large apartment building, where a cast of colorful characters walks in and out. At one such party, Kate meets Ben, the man who will remain her constant on what will become a haywire journey. At the party, they debate about the validity of the “great man” theory. Is it possible that a few key individuals really define the course of human history? But they’re so swept up in fast love that they don’t continue the argument.

Kate begins to dream more frequently. Her dreams last longer, are more vivid. And when she wakes up, she wakes up in a world slightly altered by whatever she changed in her dream — and altered for the worst. Kate doesn’t understand very basic facts of this new world she’s woken up in. A new president? Cars on the road? Her friends think she’s quirky, at first. Then, after enough lapses, they think she’s deranged.

Is she deranged? Newman keeps us guessing throughout this structurally inventive novel. The whole time I read this book, I questioned whether it was possible a book could be so up my alley. Guess what? It can be! This is a bold, playful foray into big questions: The fate of ourselves, the fate of the world. What a thrill to read a book that defies all of our expectations, and takes us on a wild ride instead.