Exclusive Cover Reveal + Excerpt: Tehlor Kay Mejia’s Feminist Fantasy Debut, We Set the Dark on Fire

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Exclusive Cover Reveal + Excerpt: Tehlor Kay Mejia’s Feminist Fantasy Debut, We Set the Dark on Fire

We’ve recently hosted some stunning cover reveals, including Robin Talley’s immediately iconic Pulp and Nicki Pau Preto’s gorgeously illustrated Crown of Feathers. Now we’re thrilled to introduce Tehlor Kay Mejia’s highly anticipated debut novel, We Set the Dark on Fire.

Mejia is a Young Adult author on the rise, boasting a book co-authored with Anna-Marie McLemore (who was longlisted for the National Book Award last year) and a debut duology on the horizon. When you read the description for We Set the Dark on Fire, you’ll understand why:

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 her husband’s household or raise his children, but both wives are promised a life of comfort and luxury, far removed 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 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 give up everything she’s strived for in pursuit of a free Medio—and a chance at forbidden love?

Before we reveal the gorgeous cover designed by Molly Fehr and illustrated by Cristina Pagnoncelli, check out what Mejia has to say about the first book in her fantasy duology:

We Set the Dark on Fire is about a lot of things, but the central theme is rebellion. It’s about what happens when you realize the people making decisions for you don’t acknowledge your humanity or respect it. The line where ‘I can tolerate this to stay safe’ becomes ‘let’s burn it all down.’

“I was nervous to see the cover, of course, because I had such a clear idea of what I wanted it to communicate. But the moment I saw Cristina’s pencil sketch, I knew without a doubt she was the right person for the job. Cristina’s style is so dynamic, her murals and prints and street art are just humming and cracking with revolution. She managed to capture that spirit, along with the exact right amount of cultural influence, and I’m so thrilled that this image will be people’s first introduction to Dani and her story.”

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Katherine Tegen Books will release We Set the Dark on Fire on February 26, 2019, and you can pre-order it here. You can also get a first look at the book by reading Chapter 1 below.

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The key to a Primera’s strength is her restraint and immunity to scandal. She must not only behave like someone with nothing to hide—she must have nothing to hide.
—Medio School for Girls Handbook, 14th edition

Daniela Vargas woke at the first whisper of footsteps coming up the road.

By the time the sound of shattering glass in the courtyard alerted the campus to the presence of intruders, she was dressed and ready. For what? She wasn’t sure. After a childhood of heavy-footed military police in close pursuit, she knew better than to mistake the luxury of her surroundings for safety.

She was only as safe as she was vigilant.

The shouting grew louder. There had been rumors of riots at the border for months, in the capital for weeks, but Dani hadn’t thought they’d make it as far as the Medio School for Girls’ gated sanctuary. The campus was private and insulated: white stone, lush greenery. A place where the country’s brightest and most promising young women could train to become the wives Medio’s future husbands deserved.

Dani had been here five years. Enough time to rise to the top of her class, to secure placement as Primera to the capital’s most promising young politico. Graduation was only two days away, and then she would begin the life her parents had sacrificed family, home and more to give her.

Assuming what was happening outside didn’t get her arrested or killed first.

Another bottle shattered, closer this time, the smell of gasoline drifting in through the open window. Dani closed her eyes and muttered a half-forgotten prayer to the god in the air, to the goddess in the flames. Keep calm, she beseeched them.

No one around her would understand. Her parents’ gods weren’t in fashion this far inland—only the bearded visage of the Sun God, who ruled masculine ambitions and financial prosperity.

For a brief, unexpected moment, Dani wished her mama was here. It didn’t take long to dismiss it as ridiculous. She was seventeen, a woman grown, two days from being a wife herself. Primeras didn’t need comforting.

“Wake up!” came a voice from the courtyard. Drunk on booze or rebellion. Dangerous. “Can’t you see this is all a lie? Can’t you see people are dying? Can’t you see?”

For the first time in her life, Dani awaited the arrival of the military police with something other than terror. She wanted them to come. To disperse the protest so she could go back to doing what they all did best—pretending Medio was prospering and peaceful. Pretending there was nothing but infertile ground and ocean beyond the looming border wall that kept their island nation divided in half.

Once they left, Dani could get back to pretending, too. That she belonged. That she wanted to be here as much as her parents wanted her to be.

Footsteps passed too close outside the window, and Dani ducked below the sill, leaning against the wall, listening to the pleading sounds of a home she didn’t remember fleeing. Up and down the hall, other the fifth-year girls were likely still sleeping. Secure in the knowledge that they had no secrets to discover. Dani envied them.

The rioters didn’t even attempt to come inside. They screamed the names of family members they had lost in grief-soaked voices, chanting, pleading for the people hiding inside to wake up before it was too late.

Dani almost missed the snoring presence of her roommate, Jasmín, who had graduated the year before. With an odd number of Primera students, Dani was given the option of a single room for her final year, and with all she had at stake, she had leapt at the chance. But at least with Jasmín here, Dani would have had someone to pretend for. Some reason to quell the fear that curled in her stomach. But Jasmín was miles away now, in a mansion inside Medio’s most exclusive gated community.

She had succeeded. And Dani would, too. She just had to get through tonight.

By the time the police arrived—all authoritative boots and helmeted heads and rifle barrels—the school was locked down. The protesters had scattered in a hundred directions, the shouts increasing in volume as the officers gave chase through the tangle of trees.

Though she was glad for the peace, Dani couldn’t bring herself to thank the goddess of law for the presence of the officers tonight. Most of the protesters had escaped, from the sounds of it, but a few were being captured and restrained, and Dani shivered at the thought of where they were headed.

The cells in Medio’s only prison were all dank and hopeless, but the ones reserved for rebels and sympathizers were rumored to be windowless as well. Dark as the sap dripping down the citrus trees, day and night.

People who went into them rarely came out.

A rapping on the door interrupted the quiet, and Dani found relief in the way she dropped her prayers, her fear of discovery, everything that was out of place in this room. By the time she answered the door, she was who they expected her to be. Not a hair, or a thought, out of place.

“Everyone okay in here?” asked the resident, flanked on both sides by police. Her voice shook, and Dani wondered what she had to be afraid of.

“It’s just me,” Dani said. “And I’m fine.”

The resident—Ami, Dani remembered—only nodded. Of course Dani was fine. She was a Primera, after all, and Primeras didn’t let their emotions take control. Not even when everything they held dear was at stake.

Especially not then.

“We need all students to report to the oratory,” Ami said. “We’re here to escort you.” She was afraid, but sure, Dani thought. The picture of a young woman who had never had anything to lose. Who had never entertained the thought that something truly bad might happen.

“Is everything alright?” Dani asked in a careful voice.

“Someone disabled the gate alarm from inside,” she said. “The officers need to speak with all students and staff.”

Dani nodded, not trusting her voice. She had done nothing wrong, she told herself. Unlike like the people being arrested outside.

She repeated it in her head to keep calm: I’m not a criminal. I’m not like them.

“And please,” said Ami as Dani adjusted her dress at the shoulders, the familiar motion calming her, “bring your identification papers.”

Dani’s eyes begged to widen, her fingers to tremble, her heart to hammer at her ribs. She refused them all, her face carved from stone as she’d been trained to hold it. No emotion. No weakness.

She kept her posture as carefully restrained as her face, approaching her desk, drawing out a battered folder that had crossed an entire nation with her. Its contents had cost her parents every cent they’d earned by the time she was four years old.

They had gotten her through thirteen years, these papers. She could only pray to the gods of fate and chance that they would get her through one more.

In the hallway, the police took the lead, expressionless. The courtyard was deserted, but the officers drew their guns as they searched for intruders, shoulders tense. Ami held her hands in front of her face, as if the protesters were malicious, toxic. As if they had something she could catch.

Dani knew better. They were just broken.

The oratory doors were open, light spilling out into the darkness. Dani’s deities didn’t live in this room. Not anymore. Not the goddesses in the stars, nor the winking gods in the trunks of the trees. Here, the Sun God held court, bare-chested, muscled and proud. Even his wives were missing from the largest paintings. He was mostly ornamental now, this fierce god-king at the center of so many of Medio’s myths. The powerful used him as proof that they were chosen, but the only things people worshipped on the inner island were money and power.

Even still, the oratory looked hopeful inside—hundreds of tiny candle flames, standing against the night. In this corner of the world, if nowhere else, light was winning.

Dani was ushered inside by Ami, who left her to sit on a bench unnoticed. As police and maestras tried to create order among two hundred scared, exhausted girls, she clutched her papers in her hands, refusing her allow her palms to perspire.

The Primera students sat mostly still, self-control as much a part of them at this point as their names. The fifth-years would be overseeing households by the end of the week, staffing enormous houses, managing social calendars. Supporting the husbands they’d spent a lifetime training to earn.

Across the room, the Segundas were utterly beside themselves. In various states of undress, they held hands and leaned against each other, expressing their fear and exhaustion unreservedly to anyone who would listen. Near the front of the oratory, one was actually sobbing.

Dani couldn’t even remember the last time she’d let herself cry alone.

She could roll her eyes all she liked at the preening, fluttering Segundas, but things were the way they were supposed to be. The way they had always been. Opposites, coming together to make a perfect whole. And when Dani finally stood up and took her vows, she would be part of it at last, just like her parents had wanted.

Two more days, she told herself.

There were one hundred and ninety-six girls in this year’s graduating class, and ninety-eight young men from prominent families waiting for them when they completed their studies.

Within these walls, they trained perfect wives. Primera and Segunda. The tried and true way to run a fully functioning home at the caliber required by the country’s elite. Inner-islanders had flourished this way for thousands of years, long after faith had stopped driving the equation. No one was about to change the method now.

Looking around the ostentatious oratory, artistic renditions of Medio’s origin story depicted across its walls, Dani tried to remember the last time she’d even heard the gods mentioned. They were everywhere at home, but what need did the inner-islanders have for gods? Faith, it so often seemed, was for the lacking.

Her musings had almost returned her heart to its normal rate when two maestras began to whisper, sunk low into a pew behind her. Dani listened closely. She’d been trained to be aware, resourceful, to find knowledge where she needed it, and to use it.

“Do you think it was one of ours?” asked one nervous voice.

“I hope not, but we’ll know soon enough either way,” said the second.

“What do you mean?”

“They had them bring their identification papers. I heard there’s a new method for verification. If there are any forgeries in the school, they’ll find out tonight.”

The conversation continued, but the blood pounding in Dani’s ears drowned out whatever came next. The battered envelope crinkled beneath her grasping fingers. At her hairline, sweat began to bead.

If they really had a new verification system . . .

Dani stood as surreptitiously as she could, inching toward the wall. With those few whispered words, everything had changed. If she could just lean against this wall a moment, maybe she could make her way toward the door without anyone seeing.

But what then? asked a practical voice in her head.

Down the hill into the capital? Blend in until she could make it back to her parents? But going back would only make them targets as well. The Medio School for Girls could hardly fail to notice the disappearance of their star student two days before graduation.

And even if they did, they’d certainly miss the small fortune the Garcia family was planning to pay for her. The school would keep most of the money, of course, but the wealthiest families paid the most generous sums, and Dani’s portion was meant for her parents. To buy them a small piece of the life they had earned for her when they fled the only home they’d ever known. When they left behind family and friends and every ounce of certainty. They’d lived in fear of discovery for years so Dani could have a chance to shine, but daughters in prison weren’t worth a cent, and dead ones were even worse.

For a moment, framed by the doorway of the oratory, Dani hated the protesters. Why tonight? When she was so close to getting everything she’d worked for, giving her parents their due . . .

“Daniela Vargas?” came a gruff voice.

Her heart sank. She was out of time, and no closer to deciding what to do.

When she didn’t come forward immediately, several of her classmates’ heads swiveled in her direction. When had Daniela Vargas ever failed to respond to an order?

She took a single step toward the officer, who was twice her width and half again as tall.

The room was too bright, every sound too loud. The windowless cell that had haunted her childhood nightmares swam to life behind her eyelids whenever she blinked. Once her papers were proven false, they would assume she had let the protesters in. They would think she was here to spy, to help the rebels, when all she wanted was to keep her head down. Be a good Primera. Make her parents proud.

If she could have, she would have whispered to the goddess of duty, to ask her to show the way, but there was no time, and too many eyes were on her now.

Tears began to threaten. She could not let them fall.

She moved ever so slightly forward.

“Señorita?” the officer said, an edge in his voice that hadn’t been there the first time. “This way, please.”

There was noise in the room, of course there was—other names were being called, other girls interviewed. Segundas were complaining about the late hour, and the dark circles they’d have beneath their eyes come morning. But Dani felt as though she was the only one moving, the only one anyone could see. Her heartbeat was audible to everyone, wasn’t it? Wasn’t it?

The officer stepped forward, taking her elbow, steering her toward the classrooms in the back. But he stopped when her knees locked. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t breathe.

“Señorita?” came another voice, a kinder voice. “Are you feeling alright?”

Dani turned toward him, feeling like a fish washed up on the beach. He was in uniform, like the others, but he was slighter, younger, his eyes bright and curious.

“Who are you?” growled Dani’s would-be captor.

“Medic,” said the younger man, gesturing to the band around his left sleeve. White with a red cross. Dani’s breath came easier for a moment, though she couldn’t have said why.

“I need her in the back for questioning,” said the officer, tugging on Dani’s unresponsive arm. “We have half the list to get through still, and those girls in the front are giving me a headache.”

Under normal circumstances, Dani would have smiled.

“I understand, sir,” said the medic. “But my orders are to care for any student experiencing shock after the riot. These aren’t common rabble, you know. Their fathers write angry letters when their precious daughters faint.”

A staring contest ensued, and Dani swayed again for effect. If they took her to recover from shock, maybe she would get a second chance to run. “I don’t feel so well,” she said in the smallest voice she could fake. Primeras used whatever resources they had at hand.

One hand flew to her stomach, the other to her mouth.

The enormous officer stepped away in disgust. “Take her,” he said, shoving Dani toward the medic. “But she better be back in this room in ten minutes.”

“Yes, sir,” said the boy, managing a clumsy salute as he shouldered Dani’s weight.

He smelled like cinnamon and warm earth. A familiar smell. A comforting one.

“Right this way,” he said with a smile, and Dani followed, a tiny flame of hope alive in her chest. Maybe it wasn’t too late.

“Let’s find somewhere you can relax,” the medic said, mostly to himself, trying several doorknobs before settling on one.

“This is a—” Dani began, but he silenced her with a look, ushering her into a supply closet full of empty candle glasses and brooms. Goose bumps rippled up and down Dani’s spine.

“Nice performance back there,” said the boy, closing the door behind him. “Even I almost believed you.” His face transformed in the dark of the closet. From stoic and soldierly, he was suddenly foxlike, all sharp angles and mischief.

“I don’t know what you—” Dani began.

“Save it,” he said. “We don’t have much time.”

And with that, he took Dani’s papers, the hard-won key to her whole life, and tore them cleanly in half.

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