Hallelu, guys, gals, and non-binary pals! I’m very excited to be bringing you my offering for today! Not only is it one of my most anticipated reads for the year, it’s also an enemies-to-lovers f/f revolutionary fantasy! Yup, you heard me right.
If you loved Girls of Paper and Fire and suddenly find yourself more in need of the trope of “wives/concubines of wealthy dictator fall in love with each other instead”, keep reading. I think you’ll like what I have to say.
Title: We Set the Dark on Fire
Author: Tehlor Kay Mejia
Age Range: Young Adult
Genre: Fantasy, Dystopian, LGBT
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?
Trigger warnings: Violence, abusive relationships, extreme poverty, starvation, anti-immigration sentiment
☕ Quotes ☕
“In a battle between two men trying to control her, she’d chosen herself.”
“Maybe this was trust … Giving someone the power to ruin you, betting your life on the belief that they wouldn’t.”
“Dani’s father always told her that secrets made her strong. Her maestras had told her restraint made her strong. But Dani knew now that to crack open what you thought you knew, to allow it to scar with truth, that was what made you truly strong.”
“The bad stuff will be there … If we want to fight it, we have to find joy where we can. We have to find beauty. We have to take our moments to be happy. Because the joy is what keeps us strong and reminds us we have something to fight for.”
“They tell us about the curse of the Salt God because it’s a simple story, but I don’t think it’s the real story. I think the real story is greed, and money, and politics. Privilege and prejudice. A system that was created thousands of years ago by people who wanted to reward those like them and punish everyone else.”
☕ Plot ☕
This book had me at “it’s Latinx f/f fantasy!!!!” to be honest. But then I found out this also involves political intrigue, spying, and revolutions, I was like, I needed this in my life like yesterday.
The premise is interesting. In the island nation of Medio, life is extremely polarized. The island’s interior is occupied by the elite rich and wealthy, while the poor live close to and beyond the border, where they are consistently terrorized by the Medio police. The main character, Daniela, is from a family that forges papers and crosses the border in search of a better life – one which her family thinks is within their grasp when they convince Dani to enroll in the Medio School for Girls.
At the school, girls are trained to be wives of Medio’s political and socioeconomic elite. Each eligible bachelor is entitled to two: the Primera is in charge of the household, basically serves as the husband’s eyes, ears, and sounding board, and are prized for their cool head and analytic skills; the Segunda on the other hand provides emotional comfort and intimacy, and provides and raises the family’s children. Daniela is the best Primera of her year, and is married off to Mateo Garcia, the son of the president’s chief military strategist. She thinks being Mateo’s Primera is the key to wealth and safety, but two things happen that put a spanner in those works: first, Mateo’s Segunda is none other than Carmen, a popular, beautiful girl from the Medio School who bullied and tormented Daniela; and second, soon after her marriage, Daniela is approached by Sato, a leader from the revolutionary group known as La Voz. Sato knows that Daniela and her parents are in Medio illegally, and blackmails her with that knowledge in order to get her to spy on her husband.
At first, Daniela is furious that she’s being compromised in such a way. But she begins to realize that her safety – and the safety and wealth of the people around her – comes at a price: the lives of the poor, the people from whom Daniela came. And with this revelation comes another – Carmen isn’t as bad as she was when they were in school together, and perhaps their tentative friendship can evolve, in the loveless, lightless, terrifying life that is marriage to the cruel Mateo Garcia, into something more.
We Set the Dark on Fire is honestly one of the most intriguing and promising plots I’ve heard about this year, and reading the book fulfilled all my expectations and then some. It takes your standard “revolt against the oppressors” plot and turns it into something more human. Not only are we shown Dani’s internal struggle, sacrificing her own safety for something bigger than herself, but we’re also shown the larger implications of what La Voz is trying to do.
Superimposed over the external conflict is the internal one of Dani trying to decide what she feels for Carmen, and it’s vulnerable, tender, and poignant. As Tehlor Kay Mejia herself said, Dani’s so new to having a sexuality that it’s still a bit of a journey for her figuring out what exactly her feelings for Carmen are, and whether or not she should act on them. (Oh, look, I made myself sad.) I felt for Dani all the way, and was rooting for her and Carmen to get together like nothing else. (Spoiler alert: they do!)
☕ Writing ☕
One of my favorite things about this book is the usage of religion as a way to control political narratives. It opens with a prologue that tells the legend of the Sun God and the Salt God, why men in Medio have two wives, and why there’s a divide between the inner island and those who live on the shores. Supposedly, those in the interior are the Sun God’s chosen people and deserve to live in peace and prosperity while those who live in the Salt God’s realm are lesser.
The world-building was a little vague, but I didn’t mind so much because the characters and their interactions were really well-written. I felt every emotion, from Sota’s desire to help his people, to Daniela’s determination to do the right thing, to Carmen’s feelings for Daniela.
In particular, I adored how the growing tension between Daniela and Carmen was written. The “will they, won’t they?” nature of their relationship was one of the best parts of the book. And best of all, it was actually enemies-to-lovers. I’ll be honest – I’m very wary of romances that describe themselves as enemies-to-lovers because usually the main characters aren’t really outright enemies. Snarking at each other for one page in the first chapter and then making out in the next one does not an enemies-to-lovers make. But this one actually was! When we get Carmen’s back story of why she gave Daniela such a hard time, it makes sense. (And this sort of hate really does happen, which is sad, but it speaks to Tehlor Kay Mejia’s ability to talk about pertinent real life issues!) And the two of them falling for each other is the best slow burn enemies to friends to lovers anyone could ever ask for.
The one issue I have with this book is that the ending left quite a bit to be desired. I wish there had been more of a concrete plot with an ending that told me, okay, this is the end of book one. I feel like like when this picks up again at the beginning of book two, it’ll feel sort of as though book one was more of a part one in a single book. (Does that make sense?)
Still, I think this is definitely a me problem. And I don’t think this was enough of a deal-breaker to warrant knocking off a full star, so my official rating for this book is 4.5/5! (Although I rated it 5 on Goodreads because Goodreads hasn’t been updated since I was in high school and STILL DOESN’T GIVE HALF STARS AS RATINGS.)
☕ Characters ☕
Let the record show that I would die for Primera Daniela Noa Vargas. *slams gavel*
Dani is my soft daughter who deserves all the happiness in the world. She deserves to discover her sexuality and make out with her sexy, scantily-clothed girlfriend whenever and wherever she wants! *breaks down sobbing*
For real though, one of this book’s greatest strengths is how well-developed and well-written the characters are. I kind of talked about it a little bit earlier in this review, but Daniela’s transformation from scared little girl thinking of her parents’ sacrifices and wanting safety into someone with strong beliefs and principles who knows that everyone deserves peace and prosperity was a thing of fucking beauty.
And speaking of character-driven scenes, let me talk about one of my favorite moments in the entire book. La Voz stages a protest in the marketplace where they refuse to engage with the Medio police. Instead, they give speeches, sing songs, and plead peacefully with the people of Medio to understand their plight. This poses a problem for the Medio police in that they can’t retaliate without losing support from the Medio people and proving the point of La Voz. The police respond by setting off bombs in the marketplace and accusing La Voz of trying to kill the people, which then supposedly justifies the police opening fire against La Voz.
This scene reminds me so much of the bombing of Plaza Miranda and of the EDSA Revolution here in the Philippines, not to mention the protests done by indigenous Filipinos against the police and the army which devolve into violence and chaos. Peaceful protests are a cornerstone of the modern revolutionary movement, and the way that the police respond to them are indicative of their very nature as tools of the elite oppressors.
This fact is reflected so very well in the novel, and of Dani’s innate response to them. As a child with her parents, the police were feared. They could barge their way into your home and take whatever they wanted. But now, as the Primera of one of the most powerful men in Medio, Dani finds the police are now beneath her, and are in fact to be viewed with trust and even slight contempt rather than the abject terror of before.
Tehlor Kay Mejia manages to tell one hell of a story with just her characters’ inner thoughts, feelings, and actions, and I am here for it.
☕ Overall ☕
We Set the Dark on Fire is a character-driven, emotional, star-crossed romance set in the midst of political upheaval and unrest. It’s like an afternoon telanobela but simultaneously more informative and more passionate. Definitely pick up this book if you’re into forbidden love and political intrigue!