Tehlor Kay Mejia's 'We Set The Dark On Fire' Is A Fantasy Novel That Tackles The Immigration Debate Head-On
Young adult fans, take note! Bruja author Tehlor Kay Mejia's debut novel, We Set the Dark on Fire, has finally arrived, and it's a dazzling Latinx fantasy story. You can read an excerpt from Mejia's debut novel below.
We Set the Dark on Fire centers on Daniela Vargas, the Medio School for Girls' top student. The school is responsible for training young women to be wives and mothers to their country's elite men. Once she graduates, Dani is guaranteed to live in the lap of luxury as one of her husband's two wives. Her marriage to the son of a prominent government official will come crashing down if he finds out who she really is — an immigrant whose parents purchased forged paperwork to secure her future.
Dani isn't found out when she graduates, at least not so far as she can tell, but life throws her a different curve ball. Tasked with spying on Medio's upper classes by a rebel group that wants to bring equality to the nation, she must decide — live in comfort in a loveless marriage, or fight for the freedom to choose a forbidden love.
Read an excerpt from Tehlor Kay Mejia's We Set the Dark on Fire below:
The graduation ceremony is the culmination of a Primera’s training; a first glimpse of the future she has earned, and the heights to which she will rise. — Medio School for Girls Handbook, 14th edition
On graduation morning, the sun rose early just to shine in the windows of Medio’s most celebrated young women on their special day.
Dani was up earlier, sitting at her desk, reading a letter whose creases had smoothed out with time and handling. The date was five years earlier — the handwriting, her mama’s.
Dear Daniela, it began. I write you this letter with all the hope a mother can feel, on the first day of the life you deserve. It will seem strange, after the way we’ve lived, but I know you, m’ija. You have a big heart, a strong mind, and you will find a way to make a life you love. No matter how different it is from the one you left.
Her mama couldn’t say everything, of course. Not in writing. To the students at the Medio School for Girls, Dani was just a girl from somewhere below the capital. Even the ones who knew she was lower class could never know that Dani’s hometown — shameful enough for its proximity to the border wall — wasn’t in fact the place she had been born.
Her dress for the ceremony was pressed and laid out on the bed, her door open to the sounds of girls preparing for the arrival of their families. Normally, Dani ignored them; she wasn’t here to make friends. Still, on this, the last day of her school career, she watched them a little more closely. She was envious, she realized. Of the excitement. Of the glow in their cheeks.
Dani felt satisfaction, yes. The solid, warm feeling of a duty accomplished well. But there was no joy in this day for her. No family arrivals. No celebrations.
In one of her infrequent letters home, Dani had sent two graduation tickets to her own parents, but it had been a formality. Something for her mother to pass around at the well. Dani had, of course, been vetted by the Garcia family. They knew what her papers told them — that she had been born in Polvo, and had risen far above what they’d expected of her here. Not everyone at this level was upper-class legacy, but it certainly didn’t get you anywhere to flaunt your unseemly poverty. Especially in front of the people who’d just paid a small fortune to marry you to their son.
Normally, Dani ignored them; she wasn’t here to make friends. Still, on this, the last day of her school career, she watched them a little more closely. She was envious, she realized.
Overcoming obstacles was good. Showing off the salt-curse in your blood was not.
When the return letter had come from her parents, it said as much, wishing her luck, telling her how proud they were. Dani hadn’t seen them in person since she’d boarded the bus to the capital at twelve. They didn’t speak of it, but she’d likely see them only once or twice more in her life.
The island was a mountain, and the higher you climbed, the better off you were.
For a politico’s Primera, a trip to sea level, to the place where the wall separated Medio proper from the lawless outer island, was nothing short of inappropriate. As tensions rose at the border and the frequency of the riots increased, a whisper of “rebel” or “sympathizer” — however untrue — clung like the smell of smoke. To spend too much time below the capital was to risk your loyalties being called into question.
The tensions had moved far past mythology. Far past brother-gods and curses as old as the island itself. It was political now. Rights and riots and the prosperous versus the destitute. On one side, there was the might of a nation. On the other, desperation. Every clash was a violent one, every victory bloody and hollow with loss.
There was no going back.
But still, her heart squeezed uncomfortably in her chest at the idea of her mama. She would look older now, Dani realized, and for a moment she was right back in Polvo, tiny brown fingers digging for candy in an apron pocket, bare feet in the dirt. For a moment, a kind word or a kiss was all it took to make everything better.
The promise of family and the guiding hand of the past had been such innate parts of life in Polvo that sometimes Dani felt like all the Primera training in the world wasn’t enough to fully banish them from her bones.
But still, her heart squeezed uncomfortably in her chest at the idea of her mama.
This is inappropriate, said the nagging voice of a maestra in the back of Dani’s mind. Primeras don’t cling to nostalgia; they’re above such weakness. A true Primera keeps her eyes on the future.
When the hall emptied, Dani followed the crowd. She might not have had parents to show around, but she had a few goodbyes to say before tomorrow’s departure. Her father had warned her not to get too close with any of the girls, reminding her that closeness led to trust, and trust could be broken.
But the best climbing tree on campus couldn’t tell her secrets, and neither could the view from the top-floor library balcony. The light-as-air tortillas in the cafeteria wouldn’t dream of betraying her. And that tile mosaic in the south courtyard, the one everyone passed by without looking? It always kept its mouth shut.
Dani visited them all, the places where she’d found sanctuary from her early homesickness, the places she’d neglected as she rose in the ranks and started wearing her Primera dresses like more than a costume. This school had been her home, much more than the distant place she’d come from. She didn’t know if she’d miss it, but it had earned a goodbye, at least.
Feeling peaceful and full after eating her last school meal — pork swimming in garlicky tomatillo sauce, perfectly spiced red rice that stained your fingers oily red, and a small tower of those incredible tortillas — Dani wove her way through the visiting families and back to the dormitory. It was time to prepare for the most important night of her life.
But before she could make it across the east courtyard, a whispering knot of Segundas sashayed into her path. Dani prayed silently to the god of hurry that she’d escape their notice. Unfortunately, he wasn’t on her side today.
“I think you’ve got some . . . is that oil, on your cheek? I don’t know how they eat where you’re from, but at this altitude we try to use a little decorum.”
The cold, ringing voice could only belong to one person, and Dani steeled herself before stopping to face her.
Carmen Santos towered over the girls simpering beside her, dressed in swirling turquoise silk that set off her golden- brown skin. Her curls were so black they glinted in the late afternoon sun like the dark metal of a loaded pistol.
By comparison, Dani felt weak as a reed in the wind, her black dress hanging from narrow hips and negligible curves. Her child’s cheeks. The close-cropped waves of her unruly hair. The skin that cooled olive where Carmen’s glowed like the setting sun.
Primeras were not vain, Dani reminded herself. Their value came from deeper wells than physical beauty. “I’ll take that under advisement,” she said, anger rattling the bars of her restraint, though her face showed nothing. “Enjoy your afternoon.”
“Guess they don’t teach you to stand up for yourself out there, either,” Carmen said. “Just goes to show, you can take the girl out of the salt, but you can’t take the salt out of the girl.”
The anger was rattling harder now, and Dani stopped, standing perfectly still as she weighed her options and the other girls smirked and giggled among themselves. Maybe it was the finality of it all that made her pause. She’d been tolerating Carmen’s unsubtle digs since they’d met on the shuttle from the capital, five long years ago. It was the first and only time Dani — alone and scared, miles from home — had confided in anyone about her modest upbringing.
Twelve-year-old Carmen had been no less beautiful, but her wide eyes had been friendly then, and Dani had trusted her against her father’s advice. How could a girl with a pretty face and an easy smile ever betray her?
The anger was rattling harder now, and Dani stopped, standing perfectly still as she weighed her options and the other girls smirked and giggled among themselves.
She found out all too quickly, when Carmen settled in with the girls of her own station, and the fragile friendship they’d built up over the miles became collateral damage.
“Hey, Carmen,” Dani said at last, letting just a hint of her true feelings through. Just this once. Carmen turned, hand on hip, and waited. “You might be right about the salt, but I guess growing up in silk and silver doesn’t guarantee class. Thanks for the lesson.”
When Carmen’s eyes flashed, Dani knew she’d hit her mark. “Listen to me, you border brat. You wouldn’t know class if it barreled through that village of yours and flattened your family hovel.”
“Maybe not,” Dani said. “But I know desperation better than most, and you reek of it.”
Carmen gestured once, sharply, and the other jewels fled the crown, leaving the two of them alone. “I’d work on that temper of yours, Primera,” she said, her voice lower now. Almost dangerous. “Not that you’d know, but well-bred men like their women to have a little charm.”
Dani took a deep breath, praying to the god of voice that she could hold hers steady. “That’s one of the perks of having actual value,” she said. “You don’t have to rely on frivolous things like charm.”
Carmen laughed, and Dani carried the mocking sound all the way back to her room, where she used slow, controlled movements to open and close her drawers, putting on her Primera-issued graduation dress with an exaggerated precision that masked her frustration.
There was something about Carmen that got under Dani’s skin. Partially, it was anger at her twelve-year-old self for acting on instinct rather than logic, but that wasn’t all of it. It was the way people treated Carmen, too. Doted on her. Acted like she was so special because she was rich and beautiful and everything came easily.
It had been a hard adjustment, coming here from a house with a dirt floor, but Dani had made it. She’d grown used to the way the other girls acted, like they expected the world on a silver platter and they weren’t planning on being disappointed.
But in Carmen, that entitlement was magnified somehow. She was the face of everything Dani would never have, would never be, and she hated her for it. For the way her world was unfolding like a flower, while Dani was just trying to make way.
“The graduation ceremony will begin in one hour!” came the resident’s voice from the hallway, calling them to order for the last time. “Please finish your preparations and make your way to the oratory.”
Dani did her best to shove thoughts of Carmen into the little box where she kept off-limits things. Fears. Irritations. Longings. Regrets. It was one of the earliest lessons of a Primera’s training — learning to wall off the feelings that could interfere with your restraint. By the time Dani walked out of the dormitory doors, she was smooth and gleaming like lacquered wood.
But in Carmen, that entitlement was magnified somehow. She was the face of everything Dani would never have, would never be, and she hated her for it.
It was time to be the flawless girl this institution had invested so much in. Time to earn the notas that would keep her parents fed and clothed for years, patch their roof, and buy her father new work boots with solid soles.
It was time, she thought sadly, to put that other future to rest. The one she’d seen bloom in a look between her parents. The one she might have had if she’d stayed at home, where joining yourself to someone was more than just a business arrangement. The upper class had always looked down on the lower for the way they married. Pitied them for the lack of the sun’s blessing until the pity twisted into prejudice. One partner, for better or worse — they thought it uncivilized. A relic of a cursed past. But for most of her life, it had been all Dani knew.
Primera training had reduced the memory down to a quiet whisper in her bones, but tonight it would be silenced for good.
On the way to the oratory, she opened the box for just a moment and let her memories of Polvo flood in. The looming wall that hid the place she had truly been born. The salt-hard ground where nothing much would grow. The laughter of children and the dancing feet of adults not too tired from another day of survival to feel joy. The fires in barrels and the sweet wine she’d sneak sips of with her friends under a million stars. Her home.
Polvo was lost to her. And it was time to grow up.
The oratory blazed once more against the night. Little as she loved the idea of pledging herself to a stranger tonight, Dani thought, at least she could feel good about her reasons for doing so. It would never be happiness, but maybe, like her mama said, it could be enough.
“Primera students to the left, please! Segundas to the right!” Residents prowled the aisles, hushing, herding, restoring order.
Dani found her place on her own, settling in, offering half-hearted nods to the girls surrounding her. The peers she’d never allowed herself to know or befriend. How could she have? When the only time she’d tried . . . Well, the scene with Carmen today had been proof enough of that outcome.
Across the aisle, the Segundas were a riot of color and sound, swapping lip stains and fluffing one another’s hair, tightening the ends of braids, trading woven bracelets for friendship and luck. The difference across the aisle was stark. But that was how it was supposed to be. Emotion clouded your judgment, and logic hampered your ability to feel. The Sun God had been wise, and thousands of years of prosperous Medians were proof of his blessing’s worth.
Even Dani, with her false papers and dusty memories, the little gods that turned on her in key moments to stick out their tongues, couldn’t argue with results.
She closed her eyes against the bustle of energy and noise, and under her breath she recited the pledge she’d be offering to Mateo Garcia. It was tradition, the first impression a husband got of his new Primera, and she wanted it to be flawless.
Around her, a hundred other Primeras prepared in their own ways. A hundred weddings would be taking place here tonight. A hundred hopeful pledges by Constancia’s chosen ones, hiding the trembling of their hands. A hundred promises by daughters of the Moon Goddess, who had never looked more beautiful than they would tonight under the candlelight. A hundred family cloths, woven by mothers, wrapped around the shoulders of the three as they vowed to accept their blessing. To be partners. To be one.
It should have felt like flying, and for some of the girls it probably did. But the part of home Dani thought she’d exhaled outside the oratory was back with a vengeance. She didn’t want to be here, she realized with a dull sense of horror. She wanted to go home.
You will find a way to make a life you love, said her mama’s voice in her heart. No matter how different it is from the one you left.
As they had been meant to do all those years ago when Dani boarded the bus to the capital, her mama’s words kept her in place now, her face impassive as her heart threatened to break into pieces.
“Ladies and gentleman of Medio,” said Headmatron Huerta. “Welcome.”
Her voice had always had a subduing effect on a crowd. Even the Segundas’ feathers settled as all eyes turned toward the front. Dani kept her mama’s words close, repeating them like a mantra when her restlessness threatened to get the best of her.
She didn’t want to be here, she realized with a dull sense of horror. She wanted to go home.
You will find a way to make a life you love.
“This ceremony is the crowning event of our academic year. The young women before you have worked tirelessly to reach this moment, and we could not be prouder to present them to you tonight.”
As applause filled the room, a buzzing numbness began at the base of Dani’s spine and spread. Despite her calming mantra, the room took on an odd, shimmering quality.
Was this her body, sitting straight-backed and sure in this pew?
“But I don’t need to tell you how outstanding these girls are,” Headmatron Huerta continued. “You’ve seen it for yourself during your interviews with them. When you weighed their accomplishments, their virtues, and chose them to become members of your families.”
More applause. The latch on the forbidden corner of Dani’s mind rattled dangerously. Everything inside it screamed to be let free. Nights with her parents, their simple but hearty food between them, laughter painting the night. Days with her friends, people who had known her since childhood, people who protected her secret and even shared it. People she could trust.
And someday, maybe, a love that arose on its own. A marriage that wasn’t forced. Blessing or not, was she wrong to want that? Her Primera training rebelled against the thoughts, but Dani found for the first time that it wasn’t enough to stop them.
“We have a lot of commitments to make here tonight,” said the headmatron, drawing Dani back to the present. “So let’s get right to it.” She gestured beyond the rear door to a classroom space, where a hundred young husbands waited for the wives their fathers had bought them. “Without further ado . . .” Her voice brimmed with satisfaction as she removed the list from a compartment below the podium. Dani could almost see the gold coins spilling over in her mind’s eye.
Some girls were worth more than others, some families willing to pay more for the best. But the real winner here was the Medio School for Girls, who sent a dowry to each girl’s family and took a cut for themselves.
All this white stone and intricate tile-work didn’t come cheap, after all.
“Will Juan Felipe Tejada Alvarez please come forward?”
The door behind the headmatron opened, and a boy strode forward with an abundance of confidence. The atmosphere among the graduates became electric just as Dani’s nerves threatened to corrode her iron restraint. This was it.
Juan stood to the left of the podium, scanning the crowd eagerly. Traditionally the placements were kept a secret, to bring some drama into the night’s events, but Dani knew there were few girls in these rows — on the Primera side, at least — without a very good idea where they would end up.
They weren’t the most resourceful, intelligent young women in the country for nothing.
“The Alvarez family has chosen . . . ,” said the headmatron, pausing for effect. “Primera Maria Luna Vega Sanchez!”
Dani clapped, relieved to feel sensation returning to her limbs. Maria stood, beaming and waving to her parents behind her before walking up the aisle toward her new husband, who had turned suddenly shy.
“. . . And Segunda Sofia Rios Gomez!”
Predictably, several tearful Segundas clutched at the hem of Sofia’s dress as she passed, shouting congratulations at her in high-pitched voices that made Dani’s head ache.
One of them was probably Carmen.
Not that Dani was thinking about her.
Maria and her new husband had been staring at each other, slightly awestruck, but when Sofia took the stage beside them, the dynamic changed. They seemed to settle into their roles in a way that transformed them into adults before the audience’s eyes.
“Primera, please recite your pledge.”
The room was silent as Maria promised to be Juan Alvarez’s support. His perspective. His friend, and his partner in all things. His smile was stiff but seemed genuine, and he nodded solemnly when she’d finished, sealing the pledge with a handshake, as custom dictated.
Sofia went next, her voice low and confident as she promised to be the song his life had been missing, and to care for him until the end of their days.
“And now, the cloth,” Headmatron Huerta said as Juan turned to Sofia, unfolding a cloth in the Alvarez family colors of brown, red, and gold. He wrapped it around his own shoulders before extending it, bringing Primera and Segunda under its symbolic cover. For a moment they stood nearly forehead to forehead to forehead before they stepped apart.
When Dani thought Juan could look no more boyish and afraid, he spoke clearly of his commitment to provide for them, to protect them, to be steadfast and loyal until his dying day.
Next, the headmatron produced their marriage agreement, which they signed in turns before taking a bow and disappearing through a third door, leading out to the courtyard. Tonight, the husbands would return home alone. Tomorrow morning, their new wives would join them.
After the novelty of the first commitment, Dani let the names and slightly varied pledges slide through her mind without making much of an impression. Inside, she was still a nation at war with itself. On one side, the life she’d dreamed of and the uncertainty of the life before her. On the other, her family’s hope and everything they’d left behind.
A lesser Primera would have shown it, would have trembled or gasped for breath or stood without meaning to. But Dani was not a lesser Primera. Her mask was all she had left.
Wearing it well, she waited for the name that would end the war, and after an hour or more, she heard it at last. Falling as destined by the alphabet — which was such an arbitrary way to choose to change someone’s life completely, wasn’t it?
Inside, she was still a nation at war with itself. On one side, the life she’d dreamed of and the uncertainty of the life before her. On the other, her family’s hope and everything they’d left behind.
“Would Alberto Mateo Luis Gonzalez Garcia please step forward?”
Dani’s spine went straight as a sapling, and the tingling feeling returned as the room erupted in whispers. The Garcias were far and away the wealthiest, most decorated family present tonight. Every girl in Dani’s class had coveted this placement. But only two girls in this room would walk away with the boy now stepping up to the podium, looking more like a man than any who had come before him.
He was handsome. Wide-shouldered and narrow-waisted, he stepped up looking self-assured, not bored or nervous. Like he was comfortable in front of a crowd.
The headmatron waited for the hissing to die down, and Dani thought of the elder Señor Garcia, Mateo’s father. He was the chief military strategist to the president, and there were not-so-secret rumors that he was grooming his son for the presidency.
Mateo was everything her parents had wanted for her. Wealthy. Respected. With him, she would be above reproach. Polvo’s salt-song lamented in her blood; a counterweight, a mourning cry.
“The Garcia family has chosen . . .”
Dani breathed in, making sure not to stand before it was official.
“Primera Daniela Noa Vargas.”
Her legs held steady. Her papa’s stories and the teasing laughter of her childhood friends and the vague memory of a night spent held against her mama’s body, following a flashlight beam into a new world. Was this where it had all been taking her?
Outside, the school’s top Primera took her place demurely beside the year’s most promising bachelor. Inside, Dani was a storm without an eye. She looked up at him, trying to get a read on the boy aside from his pedigree. She, of all people, knew that where you were from and where you were going weren’t always enough to tell a person’s whole story.
But he didn’t look back. A chilly sort of boredom emanated from the only Garcia son, like he got married every day. Like it was nothing. Dani felt her dread intensify. She needed a sign. A whisper from the gods in the candle flames or the starlit diosas outside to tell her she didn’t need to run. That this was the right thing to do.
They stood together, Mateo staring unseeing at the contract before them, Dani with melting iron in her spine, looking for something to hold on to.
“. . . And Segunda,” the headmatron said, consulting the paper in front of her.
Dani didn’t let herself close her eyes.
“Carmen Reina Lara Santos!”
Excerpted from WE SET THE DARK ON FIRE by Tehlor Kay Mejia. Copyright © 2019 by Tehlor Kay Mejia. Reprinted with permission of HarperCollins Children’s Books.