Book Review: We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

we set the dark on fire

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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. Both paths promise 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 pedigree is a lie. She must keep the truth hidden or be sent back to the fringes of society.
And school couldn’t prepare her for the difficult choices she must make after graduation, 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 will she give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio—and a chance at a forbidden love?

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I’ve been so interested to read this book since I first heard of it a few months ago and have been waiting for weeks now to get it from my library. It felt so nice to finally get it in my hands and I had such fun reading and highlighting the hell out of this book in a single sitting.

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The first thing that strikes you most about this book is the world. It’s an island nation, with the inner island separated from the outer ones by a wall and border security enforcement being a major concern for the government. The govt elite live separately in a compound, literally on higher ground, sound in their belief that they know what’s best for the people of their country, and anyone protesting for the sake of the poor and destitute people are immediately deemed rebels and punished harshly. The border enforcement forces are increasingly vicious, terrorizing even the people who live on the supposed “right” side of the wall, and scaring them with the possibility of being sent outside the wall. The themes of illegal immigration, the lengths to which families will go to for the safety of their children and to make it to the right side, the inhumane ways in which the government makes policies to torment and punish people are all explored very very well and the parallels to what’s currently happening in our country(and also around some parts of the world) are uncanny. The world building in this book is a great example of how authors take inspiration from the read world to create fantasies and how they can show a mirror to the fault lines that exist in our reality.

While the idea of a school to train girls to be wives is not something new in fantasies, I found the concept of two wives – one to be an intellectual partner and the other to fulfill the more usual wifely duties felt quite unique. And though atleast the Primera being an equal partner and being involved in her husband’s politics seems like a good thing for her, the inherent misogyny of this whole concept is made glaringly obvious from the get go. The women are taught to suppress their own desires and do everything for the prosperity of the “family” which in essence means the husband. And despite all the young women being trained in the same fashion, the way they are treated differently because of their background or how close/far away from the capital they were born, is a completely hypocritical version of how the supposed marriage system has to work.

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The author does a great job with the main character Dani. She is strong willed, smart, dedicated to her family because they sacrificed everything for her and only wants to keep her head down and do her job as the Primera. However, with reluctance initially, she starts working for the resistance and slowly realizes the prejudices that the elite harbor for the common people and how the whole system is based on corruption. Once she sees the truths for herself, she starts making her own choices, never caring for her safety. She did come across as impulsive and not thinking through her actions sometimes, but I could totally see where she was coming from.

Carmen on the other hand is mysterious, charming and flirty and I thought made a good balance to Dani’s slightly stoic demeanor. I loved the development of their relationship from being slightly antagonistic to kind of sister wives who slowly get to know each other better. The feelings they felt for each other developed very organically in the story and the aspect of it being forbidden definitely lent more intensity to their relationship. Everything else around them always felt so high stakes and almost dangerous, so I really enjoyed the bit of levity in the scenes when they were together. Their husband Mateo on the other hand is someone we do come to hate as a reader, but I never did get a good sense of him – I understood that he is more on the extreme and cruel side in his politics and too egotistical in nature, but I would have liked to know his motivations better.

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The writing took some getting used to for me. I’m not one for purple prose and while the author didn’t indulge too much in it, I felt the writing a little too metaphorical for my taste initially. However, I quickly fell in love with the story and got completely lost in it. There are also some very memorable scenes and conversations in the book for which I want to commend the author for her thoughtfulness. One scene which I feel will resonate with a lot of readers is when Dani shuts up a man for trying to mansplain her own life to her. It’s such a passionate piece of dialogue and I feel many women would have wanted to say something similar to a man atleast once in their life. The author also does a great job of giving her female characters the strength to discover themselves and fight for their choices in a world where they don’t really have a lot of agency. While showing the ugly reality of the government, the author doesn’t completely paint a great picture of the rebels – it’s very realistically portrayed that despite great and noble intentions, revolutions are always messy.

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Overall, this is a very fascinating world which feels all too real, with excellent female characters, a passionate sapphic romance and an ending that I really did not see coming. I would definitely recommend this to all lovers of fierce female leads in fantasy, but would like to remind everyone that this is not an action packed book, but a story that takes a deep look at prejudiced politics, discrimination of the already disadvantaged populace and why revolutions in such instances are inevitable.

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23 thoughts on “Book Review: We Set the Dark on Fire by Tehlor Kay Mejia

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    1. Thank you Alicia…. And I think we’ll get to see him more, especially now that Carmen isn’t in the picture… but he truly is a very unlikable character 😖😖

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  1. This is a great review! I’ve been meaning to pick up this book for a while, and your review makes me want to move it up on my tbr 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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