We Set the Dark on Fire is the debut novel and first in a duology by Tehlor Kay Mejia. An island’s tradition is rooted in a long ago mythology where a sun and god king settled their differences by deciding one man should have two wives; a Primera and a Segunda.
The Primera is the intelligent, social, political, public figure of the household. She is to be on the arm of her husband at all events and social occasions to support him, run his social occasions and never embarrass him or his standing in society. The Segunda is there to satisfy his physical needs, provide love and make sure the home is a warm and inviting place for him to live. She is the stay at home trophy wife but to be seen and not heard.
While this tradition, to the people of Medio, originated with a sacred mythological tradition, it has now turned very political. Only women of the proper breeding can attend the school for women who are trained to become Primeras and Segundas and only the wealthiest of men can choose these women.
Three parallels to current societal challenges are drawn from this way of life. First, you have the parallel of those who will take religion and the strict and literal ways of tradition as a means to punish those who want to fight for how it oppresses others, or those who use it as an excuse to hurt those that don’t follow their specific religion rather than letting everyone have their beliefs and live in harmony. Second, you have the oppression of those that have everything attacking and hurting those that have next to nothing to ensure that they have everything for themselves. Villainizing those that are starving, without medicine, decent living conditions and dying to those that have plenty just to make sure they stay in power and keep the cycle of oppression continuing.
The very idea of Primeras and Segundas speak to the societal norms women are often forced to fit into. As Mejia discusses at the beginning of the book, women are far too often forced to make choices between what they have to be rather than being able to move fluidly between anything they would like to be.
As women, we are so often asked to choose:
Responsible for fun? Ambitious or seductive? Nurturing or driven? Smart of pretty? The list of dualities is long, and the more intersectional our identities, the more rigid the rules for choosing… but it is also the beginning of my answer to the question: How long can we truly keep ourselves in the cages our society is so fond of locking us in?
Without giving away any spoilers Dani, the Segunda, and their husband, who is the highest ranking general in the island of Media, have many secrets that they are keeping from one another. And it has a domino effect on all of them.
Recently there are many reviews where I have railed against what has felt like the forced relationships in many books. It was honest and still is because they just weren’t necessary. This is NOT one of these books.
First, let me say the relationship that happened, I never saw coming. I knew THERE would be a relationship and initially groaned and dreaded it. I knew there was one of two possibilities. I was wrong on both accounts. When the actual relationship that happened took flight? I cheered them on, I rallied by their side and prayed for their happy ending. It is another cause that Mejia seamlessly weaves into this story without force, without fear and with purpose that makes perfect sense.
As the first book of a duology the world building is vivid and rich. The characters are built up and broken down through their secrets, their vulnerabilities, and their awakenings to the world around them (and the desires within them). Cliffhanger, you ask? Oh, I won’t tell you what it is or what happens. I will say it was a punch in the gut I never could have guessed, never saw coming and wrecked me for all involved. As trite as it is to say, it left me wishing I could run to the bookstore at daybreak and I buy it the next day.
As a former educator of fifteen years that worked with students from PK-12th grade I can honestly say this book should be in every high school class across the country. It should be taught. It should be dissected, and it should be discussed. So much of it parallels today’s conflicts and the plot, themes, inner/outer conflict of the character are so beautifully laid out that there is much a teacher and class could glean from this book.