In the far-flung future, Medio has been run for thousands of years on the principle of the ancient legend of the thieving Salt God and the financially ripe Sun God. The upper crust of society are the descendants of the Sun God and his two wives; women are expected to behave in either the manner of Constancia, the first wife, whose logic-driven intelligence means she’s the first wife and will run the household, or The Moon Goddess, whose highly emotional bravery and nurturing nature means she is to be his bedmate and take care of the children. The Medio School for Girls’ job is to test and train these upper crust girls and figure out which of the two roles they fall into – the Primera (Constancia) or Segunda (Moon Goddess), then ensure their marriage to wealthy men. Both roles are equally important and favorable, and mean a life in high-class luxury far away from where Daniela was raised. Meanwhile, the unlucky lower classes, the cast-off children of the Salt God, protest the violence and unfairness into which they have been plunged, the death, destruction and chaos. The city is divided in two, and outside the middle island’s prosperity nothing but scorched earth and dying oceans await them.
Seventeen year old Daniela Vega is the top student at the Medio School for Girls and is expected to pursue a promising future – and marriage – upon her graduation in two days. But Daniela is harboring secrets. She will be the Primera of her household , married into the Garcia family in two days time – but her pedigree is a lie, forgeries paid for by parents desperate to keep her from starving. When pressed by agent of La Voz, the most infamous group of rebels in the city, into doing a reciprocal favor, the thought nags at Dani as she finds herself married to Alberto Mateo Luis Gomez Garcia alongside her greatest enemy and rival, Carmen, his selected Segunda. Mateo soon proves to be a cold, snobbish, luxury-seeking husband – and Daniela’s interest in manipulating his burgeoning political career cannot be quelled. Soon she is blackmailed into becoming a double agent for La Voz and sent to spy on her ex-roommate at the Medio. This puts Dani on a collision course between two different cultures, forcing her to choose between the safety of her new future, the promise of a new uprising, and her desire for a simple life where her family once lived…and the chance of an unlikely and forbidden love.
AAR reviewers Shannon Dyer and Lisa Fernandes read We Set the Dark on Fire, and are here to share their thoughts on the novel.
Lisa: As a Latinx person I was super excited to read this book, having never heard of the author before. I found the way she immersed us in a culture that was reflective of Mexico to be enchanting and interesting. Had you heard of her before?
Shannon: Tehlor Kay Mejia is completely new to me as well, but she’s definitely someone I plan to keep up with from now on. I was drawn to the story because of its strong feminist themes, but it ended up delivering on a number of fronts.
Lisa: Did you like Daniela? Find her development interesting? Enjoy her development as a spy? I adored her!
Shannon: I’m a huge fan of books where the main character is a spy for some kind of resistance movement, so this angle of the story worked really well for me. Daniela is a wonderful heroine. She’s not perfect, but she grows quite a bit as the story progresses, making her exactly the type of heroine I love reading about.
Lisa: How did you feel about the world-building on display, the tension between the people of the salt and the sun? The way Mejia used ancient methodology was truly fascinating, though I did find that some of the novel’s narrative notes called back to other well-known stories.
Shannon: I give the author props for creating an immersive world unlike anything I’ve read about in recent years. She imbued the story with enough tension to keep readers invested without going over the top, and that’s something I definitely appreciate. There are so many books that rely on a ton of high action scenes and it’s easy to get tired of those, so the somewhat quieter approach of We Set the Dark on Fire worked well for me. What about you?
Lisa: I loved that part of it. The book relies so much on the tension between what Daniela knows is right and what she knows what may happen if she rebels. This is a story about the battle between logic and emotion. How do you feel about the novel’s message?
Shannon: I actually thought the message focused more on finding a balance between logic and emotion. Both are highly prized, and both are necessary in order for society to survive. I appreciated the theme of partnership that was woven through the story as Daniela tries to figure out her place in her complex world.
Lisa: That’s definitely the theme the author was going for; to be a whole person she needs to learn to integrate Segunda and Primera qualities into a single being. It’s easy enough to notice the parallel between the political landscape we live in today and the world that Mejia sets up, complete with rebellion on the street and a border-dividing wall, though some things are very different.
Shannon: I agree that the parallels were easy to spot, as were the things that set our world apart from the one in the story. I think this will help readers identify with the struggles, both internal and external that the characters are facing. Sometimes, when I read a book like this, I get the feeling the author is trying to hammer a certain agenda home, but this wasn’t at all the case here.
Lisa: Oh, definitely, and I hope this will help teenagers develop a thoughtful connection through the fantasy world to the world they live in. I admit I saw the twist coming when Carmen was introduced to the novel. Did you sense she’d be picked as the Garcia Segunda? On the other hand, I definitely didn’t anticipate the twist in her relationship with Daniela at all.
Shannon: Carmen’s role as Segunda was probably the most predictable thing about this novel, and I’ll admit to being the tiniest bit disappointed by the author’s decision to shape the story in that way. Fortunately though, I loved the way the relationship between the two girls developed as the story went on, and I eventually saw the wisdom of Ms. Mejia’s earlier choice to place them in the same household.
Lisa: The romance between them is interesting, twisty and quite unexpected. What did you think about how Daniela and Carmen end up falling for one another?
Shannon: I’m a sucker for a good lesbian romance, so I was thrilled when Daniela and Carmen began to develop feelings for one another. I loved that the author didn’t follow the usual path of having Daniela fall for a boy in the resistance.
Lisa: What about the two men in the story, Mateo and Sota? Did you find them understandable? Enjoyable?
Shannon: I didn’t find either man particularly notable. They each had a very important role in the story, but I loved that Daniela and Carmen were given the spotlight. It wasn’t necessary for me to know a ton about either Sota or Mateo, beyond the very basic information the author provided.
Lisa: We end on one heck of a cliffhanger. How did you feel about that? I wanted so much more of them but that last visceral image has absolutely stuck with me since I closed the book.
Shannon: I’m not usually a fan of cliffhanger endings, but this one didn’t bother me as much as I expected it to. I’m super excited to see what the author has in store for our intrepid heroines, and I hate the thought of waiting until 2020 to spend time with them again, but I’m confident she’ll deliver something spectacular in book two.
Lisa: What’s your final grade? I’m going with A–; the world-building, culture and characters on display are all fabulous, as is the author’s talent, and I found the novel to be quite gripping. The only minor flaw I spotted was that some portions of the novel were too reminiscent of other stories, but not enough to denigrate the originality of the plot. Still a worthwhile read and a solid recommendation from me.
Shannon: I’m going with an A- as well. I loved almost everything about this book! It’s a phenomenal start to a new series, one I am happy to recommend to readers looking for a story with strong, resourceful female leads who aren’t content to sit back and wait for someone else to save the day.
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