It Was Always Burning, Since the World’s Been Turning
A Primera hides her emotions. A Segunda revels in them.
Together, they form the perfect sister wives for the powerful men of Medio, in keeping with ancient myths about the dueling gods who once ruled the island. Having the required duo meets a man’s every need, from birthing heirs to placing correspondence on the correct corner of the hall table.
Most of these future Stepford-esque helpmates enjoyed a privileged childhood before being bred for years at the Medio School for Girls to fulfill their designated role. Dani is different.
She’s the top Primera at the school, an overachiever who’s spent most of her 17 years trying to eclipse her meager upbringing beyond the walls that divide the island. Living inside the wall means prosperity. Outside it, poverty makes families desperate. Dani’s parents used counterfeit papers to smuggle her into the school’s training program and give her a chance at a life she could never have in her home village. It doesn’t take Jake Tapper to see a connection to today’s headlines, yet this story is far more than that.
Tehlor Kay Mejia explores the boundaries of power, gender and sexuality in We Set the Dark on Fire, which melds lush world-building with thrills and action. Dani’s fake papers make her an easy target for the La Voz resistance, which recruits her as a spy on the eve of her marriage to the scion of Medio’s most powerful family. What starts as a reluctant job becomes Dani’s passion, as she quickly discovers that Mateo Garcia is not just a cosseted leader, but a cruel and dangerous one.
“For now, you’ll tell the plebeians where to put my newspapers and you’ll answer my invitations and you’ll rest assured that my father and I are doing everything we can to stop the cursed trash on the fringes of this country from destroying us all,” Mateo tells Dani after one too many drinks.
Mateo’s Segunda complicates matters. A Primera and Segunda must collaborate, not compete–but Carmen and Dani have been at odds since school, when Carmen made sure to call out Dani’s poor family to the other girls.
Court intrigue worthy of “The Favourite” ensues, from the women in Mejia’s story who joust with power to Dani’s blossoming realization that her feelings for another girl are way beyond friendship. Mejia renders their romance gorgeously, part of Dani’s growing realization that she’s a very different person than the meek consort envisioned by the Medio School for Girls.
Dark ends on a cliffhanger, with the future of many characters in question. Fortunately, Mejia is already working on a sequel. Readers will want to see how this female-fueled resistance plays out.
Katherine Tegen Books/HarperCollins (February 26, 2019)