Genres: Queer Protagonists, Secondary World No Magic
We Set the Dark on Fire (We Set the Dark on Fire, #1) by Tehlor Kay Mejia
Representation: Queer Protagonists (f/f), PoC
on 26th February 2019
Genres: Secondary World No Magic
Buy on Amazon, The Book Depository
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?
This deserves every bit of the hype it’s received.
Despite the promise of f/f, this wasn’t actually a book I was originally especially excited about – I don’t usually have a lot of interest in dystopias, which was what this sounded like, and I guess the blurb struck me as sounding a little too…conventional YA? Not in topic, obviously, but without being able to put my finger on it, I thought this was going to have a sort of Sarah Maas writing style (which I loathe – sorry to those who enjoy her books!) with that conventional YA ‘voice’ – you know the kind; the books that are too simplistic to do justice to the themes they want to explore.
I have no idea where I got all that from – it seems a lot to infer from just a blurb! – but I’m happy to say I was completely wrong on every front!
Superficially, I guess this does follow a template we’ve seen before, more or less: impoverished or otherwise outsider character goes undercover, lives the life, and starts fighting back when they realise that their personal paradise is all lies/open only to a select few/founded upon the suffering of others, etc. But We Set the Dark on Fire, unlike other books I’ve read, doesn’t try to simplify the issues at hand or talk down to the reader. There are hard, messy questions our main character, Daniela, spends the whole book trying to work out – and she doesn’t magically discover a simple solution for any of them, never mind just one, which is entirely realistic because there are few simple answers in real life either.) Which is not to say this is a preachy book with a Moral, capital M, because it isn’t: We Set the Dark on Fire is an incredible story with flawless writing and amazing characters. But it’s also about class warfare and and freedom fighters and privilege (including ‘passing’ privilege, although in WStDoF it’s class-passing rather than white- or straight-passing that’s the biggest thing). It’s a really incisive look at femme gender roles, and particularly the personality-types women are often forced into (think of the Madonna/Whore dichotomy, the idea that women can Only Be One Thing). And then there’s the exploration of sexuality – and I don’t meant the fact that this is a wlw book (although it is! And I ship it!) I mean that Daniela literally discovers that she is a sexual being and has to grapple with that, after having been taught for so long that she ought to be sex-repulsed and never experience desire or arousal. In clumsier hands it could have been a clunky exaggeration-for-effect Think Piece meant to remind readers of how femme sexuality is policed in our world – and it does bring that to mind; how could it not? But it’s a part of the story; the social commentary is quiet and subtle and left for the reader to think about. This is a book that you need to muse over for days after you’ve finished it, because there is a lot to think about – in the best way.
The synopsis covers the story outline, so I’m not going to write much about the plot, but focus on other things instead. For example: in Daniela’s world, men have two wives; a Primera and a Secunda. The Primera is the husband’s intellectual partner and adviser, part left-hand-man and part ambassador/public face of the family, and the relationship between Primera and husband should be one of respect – although they are not equal partners; this is a painfully patriarchal society and the husband will always get the final say, and can override the Primera at any time. Each chapter beings with a short quote from the Primera’s handbook which Dani studied in school, deftly painting a more and more appalling picture of how these girls and women are meant to live, even when it’s sometimes framed as Primeras being intelligent and powerful. I wouldn’t say that’s just propaganda – Dani’s Primera mother-in-law, for example, is an almost militarist matriarch whose will checks her husband on several occasions; clearly Primeras can become people of influence (although I think it’s all meant to be behind closed doors – even the most trusted and valued Primera can’t dress-down her husband in public). Primeras are meant to be cool, logical, ruthless, and tactical, as well as intelligent (and I have not seen many dystopias that encouraged women of any kind to be smart), and honestly, if this had been a different world and story – if Primeras chose this themselves instead of having it imposed upon them; if they could wield power openly in their own right; if they weren’t forced to make themselves smaller so men could have the spotlight – then I would have really loved this concept.
(I mean, I did love it, but in a this-book-is-so-good way, not an I-want-to-be-a-Primera-when-I-grow-up! kind of way.)
Secundas are the opposite in every way; they should be emotional, warm, loving, dramatic, dazzling. Secundas run the family household and are the ones who have and raise the children – because they are the only ones meant to be having sex. A Primera and her husband having sex seems to be a pretty intense taboo in Dani’s world – Primeras shouldn’t experience any sexual desire at all. Where Secundas are hedonists, Primeras must be ascetics, avoiding flavourful food and even hot showers. Secundas wear bright and beautiful colors; Primeras wear business clothing in dark tones.
In this context, Dani’s developing sexuality is far more revolutionary than just the fact that she’s falling for another woman – that is forbidden (and it was wonderful to get a quick mention of the presence of queer couples and non-binary folks on the other side of The Wall, which I will be talking about later) but the most immediate scandal/sin is the fact that she’s experiencing sexual desire at all. Personally, I found this a much more interesting way of framing it – I’m pretty tired of Queer Struggles storylines, which have plenty of value in the right hands but which I just find depressing instead of escapist. But femmes getting to be unabashedly sexual creatures is not something we get to see often enough. Femme sexuality in general is something that we’re not supposed to talk about or acknowledge, even as femme bodies are constantly sexualised just for existing. Dani’s queerness is normalised by the narrative and in large part by herself as well; she doesn’t really experience much of an identity crisis when she realises she’s attracted to another woman – of course she’s concerned, but I don’t remember any mention of queerness being sinful, only forbidden, and there’s a huge difference between things that are ethically right or wrong, and things being illegal. Morality is not defined by the law; illegality =/= sinful by default. Instead Dani is worried about her identity as a Primera, particularly the possibility that if she embraces her sexuality, her entire life will come apart. But that would have been true even if she’d been attracted to another man. Being queer is not the major issue at play.
And I think Mejia is making a point about how we in the real world treat femme sexuality, how our society demands women either be sexless and frigid (especially if they want to ‘play with the big boys’) or objects for male desire. I mean, that’s exactly how Dani’s society is set up, to the point that it would be farcical if Mejia wasn’t so good a writer. And Dani’s claiming of her body and its pleasures is an inextricable part of her story-arc, a vital part of her rebellion against the status-quo and allying herself with the freedom fighters. It shouldn’t feel so revolutionary, in 2019, to have an on-page masturbation scene – and yet it is, and the fact that it is revolutionary – to her and the society she lives in, but also to us as readers – proves my point for me. While that scene would definitely still pack a punch even if the reader came from a completely enlightened and sex-positive culture – because it’s still a revolutionary act within the context of the story – it wouldn’t be as big of a deal if it didn’t stand out so starkly from the crowd.
And honestly, WStDoF has to be examined/thought about in relation to what’s happening in our world now. I was reading this while the USA’s asylum-seeker concentration camps was (and still is) dominating my newsfeed, and the harsh cut-off line between Dani and the rest of the upper classes, and the ‘others’ on the far side of the Wall – I mean. Doesn’t that sound kind of familiar? Like maybe we’ve heard someone go on and on about building a wall to keep out the dirty violent animals trying to destroy our way of life? While this is less of an issue where I’m living (in Nordic Europe, where it is still an issue, just not nearly as much of one as in the States), won’t a huge amount of this book’s readers be sickeningly familiar with the policing of women’s bodies, from what they wear and look like to their ability to access contraceptives and abortion? The USA in particular has gone off the deep end in a big way on these issues – for as long as I’ve been old enough to pay attention to the news, the horror stories that have come out of there are…well, horrifying. And there are no white people in this book; everyone is brown, and while the culture and religion are quite different, the WStDoF world clearly draws a fair bit of inspiration from Mexico. There’s no way not to conflate this story – which is at heart the story of an illegal immigrant who has risen to the heights of success in her new home – with the bitter immigration issues and the discussions around refugees and asylum seekers (and that, as much as I would like to claim otherwise, is not an issue the USA holds the patent to) we’ve all been having for the last too-many years. As I said, reading WStDoF a few months after release, just as the public really became aware of the American concentration camps…
It’s a very timeful book, is what I’m saying.
And look, this isn’t a book that lectures you. It isn’t. I’m saying very little about the plot and characters because those things have been discussed plenty by other reviewers. All I really need to tell you about them is: they’re awesome. I pre-ordered the sequel before I was halfway through WStDoF and I regret nothing. Mejia is telling a story, and it’s an incredible one with incredible characters.
It’s just that it also happens to be a story we need right now.