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We Set the Dark on Fire

Book review by
Andrea Beach, Common Sense Media
We Set the Dark on Fire Book Poster Image
Compelling dystopian fantasy with a Latinx twist.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Dystopian fantasy meant to entertain and provoke thought.

Positive Messages

Having money and status or believing you're chosen by a god doesn't make you better than anyone else. Being privileged doesn't make you a higher quality than anyone else. Oppressed and suppressed people will eventually rise up. Refusing to listen to them or help make their lives better only results in chaos, turmoil, and violence.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Dani, loyal and grateful to her parents, is trying to live the life they want for her instead of the life she would want for herself. She's worked hard to become the highest-achieving student in her year. As she's exposed so her society's cruelties and injustice, she bravely risks her personal safety and security to try to bring about change. She and Carmela are positive representations of a same-sex relationship. Lots of positive representations of Latinx culture in a fantasy setting. Most other characters are mysterious. Some turn out to be good. Bad guys are usually motivated by craving power.

Violence

Protestor/police violence like explosions and gunshots. Pain of a burn victim is described in some detail. A knife held at the throat draws blood. Lots of hostile characters and a pervasive sense of menace and dread.

Sex

A same-sex romance involves lots of sexual tension and sensuality, and a few scenes of heavy kissing with mostly emotional descriptions. Masturbation is vaguely but sensually described once.

Language

"Bitch."

Consumerism
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Social drinking includes wine with meals and cocktail parties in a glamorized world, but there's no excess or consequences. Some negative, altered behavior from a bad guy who's drunk.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that We Set the Dark on Fire is the first of two planned volumes set in a dystopian, fictional world. Through a same-sex romance and people rebelling against an oppressive government, it explores women's roles in society, especially as they're seen by men and reflected off them, too. A few instances of violence from rebellion, like gunshots and explosions, are mostly experienced from a distance, but pain from being burned is described in some detail. The overall atmosphere is menacing. A same-sex romance describes attraction and kissing, and one scene describes masturbation vaguely but sensually. Wine with meals and cocktail parties don't result in excess, but one character's behavior is altered in a bad way when he's drunk. The only strong language is "bitch."

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What's the story?

WE SET THE DARK ON FIRE tells of a strictly divided society where the men at the very top each marry two women, a Primera and a Segunda. Despite her impoverished background, Daniela rose through the ranks to become the highest-achieving Primera of her class. Her place as first wife of the nation's most promising politician is assured. But her world starts to fall apart when her new husband's Segunda is none other than Carmela, her worst tormentor throughout her school years. And it keeps crumbling as her eyes are opened to those who are paying the real price to maintain her gilded cage. When she's asked to spy for the rebellion, it'll take all her training, and the support of the woman she loves, to avoid being found out.

Is it any good?

Debut novelist Tehlor Kay Mejia brings a refreshing Latinx twist to the first part of this absorbing, two-volume, dystopian story. Mejia ably builds a world that feels like a Caribbean island nation, complete with a compelling mythology and peppered with Spanish or Spanish-derived words and names. And especially strong is her ability to maintain a sense of dread and menace that keeps the pages of We Set the Dark on Fire turning.

Daniela and Carmela are relatable characters learning about the world around them, as it really is, for the first time. Other characters are mostly predictable clichés, from the magnetic leaders of the rebellion to the scheming, controlling mothers-in-law. But it'll provoke a lot of thought about women in society, social inequality, the walls that keep people out, and the walls that keep people in. Strong sensuality and mature themes make it best for teens and up.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about the sexy stuff in We Set the Dark on Fire. How much is OK? Is reading about it different from seeing it in movies, videos, or games? Why?

  • Why is it important for books, movies, and other media to represent different cultures, races, sexual orientations, etc.? Do you often connect with the characters you see and read about? How? If not, why not?

  • Societies that separate themselves with walls have been around for a long time, yet the story of keeping the best people in and the worst people out resonates today as strongly as ever. Has reading about this divided society changed what you think about the effectiveness or wisdom of building walls between people?

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