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First, Become Ashes by K.M. Szpara

First, Become Ashes by K.M. Szpara
4.5
Book Name: First, Become Ashes
Author: K. M. Szpara
Publisher(s): Tor.com
Formatt: Hardcover / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Urban Fantasy
Release Date: April 6, 2021

Trigger Warning for First, Become Ashes: This books (not this review) contains explicit sadomasochism and sexual content, as well as abuse and consent violations, including rape.

An individual carries their beliefs throughout their life: religious, political, truth and reality. There comes a point within each individual when those beliefs become fixed notions, which become more difficult to refute as more time goes on. Some notions such as beliefs in magic and in the unknown are the first to be debunked because “such things do not exist.” On the one hand, the unraveling of beliefs hurts us because there was a small fraction of us who wanted it to be real. On the other hand, these revelations can be seen as blessings because we get the answers to the unspoken questions so we can get on with our lives.

Then, there are the unfortunate experiences that leaves us questioning everything we thought we knew, including our purpose in life. First, Become Ashes is K. M. Szpara’s second novel, and it explores what an individual will do in order to prove the validity of their beliefs. 

Meadowlark, or Lark, is the protagonist. He has lived his entire life in Druid Hill with the Fellowship. Lark is one of the Anointed Ones, an individual who is “gifted” with magic and trained in combat. Lark and the other Anointed Ones are trained because on their twenty-fifth birthday, they will embark on a quest in the outside world to save it by defeating a F.O.E., or Force of Evil. Lark is a few months shy of his twenty-fifth birthday, but his boyfriend and companion, Kane, has just turned twenty-five and has left for his quest.

Just as Lark gets over his anxiety and his loneliness, the F.B.I. and the S.W.A.T. Team arrives at Druid Hill and arrests all of the Elders of the Fellowship—including their leader, Nova. It turns out Kane betrayed the Fellowship, and he needs Lark’s help in ending it for good. However, Lark is convinced Kane became corrupted immediately after leaving Druid Hill. Lark realizes he’s the only one who can save Kane, the Fellowship, and the world. He takes off to fulfill these quests including his personal one, proving magic exists. 

Kane discovered a long time ago that the motives of the Fellowship were lies, and were a way to maintain control over all of the residents at Druid Hill. Kane betrays the Fellowship in order to save Lark and the others, but then he needs to convince Lark that neither magic nor their quests are real; something easier said than done.

There is also Deryn, who is Lark’s (real) sibling. They were one of the Anointed Ones until Nova stripped that rank from them for unknown reasons. Since that day, Deryn was mistreated by Lark, so they decide to cooperate with Agent Miller—the lead F.B.I. Agent on this case, and someone whose worked her entire career to put an end to the Fellowship. And, there’s Calvin, an outsider Lark meets after his interrogation. Calvin is a professional cosplayer and an individual who hopes magic is real. He decides to join Lark on his quest to defeat a monster and to prove magic exists. All of these characters are victims of beliefs and they are willing to do everything they can to make sure their suffering wasn’t for nothing. 

Many of us are familiar with cults and how they operate. However, this story stands out because the focus is placed on the aftermath of the cult’s disbandment. The multiple points-of-view gives readers insight into how the Fellowship was established, how they operated, and how they got away with their crimes for over twenty-five years. Not to mention, this story delves into what could happen when members of a cult are forced to be introduced into our society. Such individuals are caught between what they were taught and what is real. All of the characters embody some form of this culture shock through the narrative. 

What I liked about this story is the homage to nerd culture the author pays throughout the narrative. There are numerous mentions and allusions to fantasy novels, video games, anime, cosplayers, comic-cons, etc., which balances the fun and the derangement that comes with the fandom. Another thing is the presentation of various types of trauma and abuse each of the characters went through, and how they are dealing with the ramifications of their ordeals. It can take a long time for anyone to overcome such ordeals, which is the reality within the fiction. 

The style Szpara uses in this novel presents a spectrum of what we all consider to be magic. There is the magic of spells Lark believes he possesses; and then, there are times when things happen that cannot be explained by logic or reason. All of the characters in this story want magic to exist and they are willing to do anything to prove validation in their beliefs. It doesn’t have to be magic, but readers will be able to recall moments when they felt the same way. 

This story is a cautionary tale of what happens when anyone uses beliefs in order to gain dominance over others. Only this time, we see tropes from fantasy books and Japanese role-playing games as the structure for these twisted beliefs and desires. Not to mention, this book is about the establishment, the practice, and the end of a cult. The novel serves as a reminder that organizations like the Fellowship have and continue to exist; and, anyone can be lured into them by their allure and their promises. 

First, Become Ashes is an urban fantasy in which the monsters that need to be defeated are personal demons. The best way I can describe it is a hybrid of Jonestown and JRPGs. The story presents all of the elements of the Hero’s Journey: the good, the bad, and the ugly, which makes it more believable.

There is a trigger warning at the beginning of the story, and I’m reiterating this book is NOT for everyone. This book contains graphic scenes of self-harm, imprisonment, rape, torture, abuse and non-consensual sex. If you have such issues with reading about these topics, then DO NOT READ THIS BOOK!

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