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?
Read: March 2019
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Fun fact: I considered purchasing this book to read it, but I was deterred by the texture of the dust jacket because it felt like a nasty-ass gritty chalkboard. Instead I saved myself some money and a lot of goosebumps by renting it from the library, complete with a nice, smooth library cover.
I’ve been trying to expand my horizons by reading more books with diverse casts of characters. In the current climate, that’s not so difficult to do, as the issues of diversity and discrimination have been brought into the spotlight by the rise of far-right ideologies and the resulting backlashes against them.
The setting of We Set the Dark on Fire isn’t as immersive as that of, say, The Hunger Games, but it doesn’t need to be. It functions as a commentary on current issues including sexism, homophobia, classism, and xenophobia. You might have heard comparisons of We Set the Dark on Fire to The Handmaid’s Tale because of its feminist elements and criticism of sexism, and those claims are accurate. But even more poignant than the discussion of gender equality is Mejia’s commentary on the struggles of undocumented immigrants. Dani herself is the equivalent of a real-world DREAMer, having immigrated from the outer island with her parents at the tender age of four. Her experiences as a poor, undocumented immigrant drive much of the story: Her fear of discovery and subsequent arrest and her desire to honor her parents’ sacrifices compel her to work with rebel group La Voz. Through both current events and Dani’s flashbacks, readers bear witness to the various obstacles manifested by Dani’s immigration status and class. The poverty she and her parents were subjected to in the outer island motivated her parents to cross the border illegally; the poverty and fear in which they lived in the inner island pushed them to sacrifice much to elevate Dani’s standard of living. Because of her immigration status, Dani balks from forming friendships with her fellow students, hindering the development of a healthy social life (or as healthy a social life as possible in this fucked-up society). And in perhaps the most alarming example, La Voz utilizes Dani’s immigration status to extort her into spying for them, an endeavor that – while perhaps might be considered beneficial – thrust Dani into a very precarious position that could have cost her her life. The use of flashbacks to explain Dani’s background might cause some readers to feel disconnected from the plights of the undocumented immigrants and the impoverished of Medio. I argue that this delivery tactic is aptly applied. Not only does the use of flashbacks highlight the distance that Dani has tried to place between her past and her present; it also emphasizes the theme of injustice existing even if it’s not directly in front of you. Dani eventually reaches this epiphany and becomes a willing agent of La Voz.
Mejia’s characterization of “good” characters is generally strong. Dani’s character in particular undergoes drastic changes, from the discovery of her sexuality to her growing urge to act on her animus against the regime, rather than simply accepting things the way they are. Carmen’s character develops too, but she is not as fleshed out as Dani due to her enigmatic nature. Likewise, Mejia grants readers satisfying yet tantalizing glimpses into Sota’s complex character without completely tearing down the mystery surrounding him. On the other hand, the antagonists are villains worthy of contempt, but for the most part they are not fully formed. For example, Mama Garcia resides in Dani’s mind as a threat for most of the book but has few interactions with Dani, and in the end it’s revealed that she is not wise to Dani’s illicit activities but is to Mateo’s before she dies in a car crash. She might have just been Mateo’s lackey, but I think that Mejia could have crafted her to be more sinister. Mateo himself is a little flat, although he’s still repulsively cruel and unhinged. As I mentioned before, though, Mejia’s glossing over of his methods might be a part of the “distant injustice” theme that plays such a huge role in this book. Interestingly, despite Mateo Garcia and Median government being at odds with each other, they are both separate antagonists and different iterations of the same antagonist: Mateo is both an embodiment of the regime and an embodiment of a worse version of it.
Although the romance sometimes seems rushed, it’s ultimately a sweet story about two young women discovering themselves and finding love even when it’s difficult or dangerous. Median high society isn’t exactly amiable toward the idea of same-sex relationships, so Dani and Carmen face adversity that stems not only from the possibility of the discovery of their affair (does it count as an affair when you’re sort of forced into a marriage?) but also from the resulting outing they would face. And at the end of the novel, Dani and Carmen are separated suddenly after Carmen is forced to reveal her allegiance to La Voz to protect Dani, who is heartbroken and bewildered by this turn of events. Readers will be anxious to find out whether Carmen will be able to make her way back to Dani!
Overall, I very much enjoyed reading We Set the Dark on Fire, even if it sometimes felt like there was something missing that I just couldn’t put my finger on and the world wasn’t as complex as I usually prefer it to be. When the sequel pops up on my library network’s catalog, you can bet I’ll place my hold on it ASAP.
I borrowed this book from my library. Remember to support your local library!