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First, Become Ashes

Review

First, Become Ashes

Following the 2020 release of the science fiction marvel DOCILE, K.M. Szpara returns with FIRST, BECOME ASHES, a stand-alone hybrid of fact and fiction, pain and pleasure, that draws into question the reality of perspective.

For 24 years, nine months and three days, Meadowlark has trained in the Fellowship of the Anointed to help rid the world of monsters. As an Anointed, he possesses a magic that he has spent his whole life fine-tuning and managing. His partner, Kane, now a quarter-century old, is crossing the gate of the fortress of Druid Hill to slay a scaled, sharp-toothed demon hiding in a flesh suit meant to look like a human. For the first time, Lark will have to complete his training and learn to harness his magic through discipline without Kane.

Still, it is only a few months until Lark can join Kane in the outside world, so you can imagine his shock when Kane returns to Druid Hill in the company of FBI agents and a SWAT team. As it turns out, there is no magical kingdom of the Fellowship, but instead a magic-based cult that has been residing in a Baltimore park for years without authorities realizing the depravities taking place within. Nova, the leader of the Fellowship, has been arrested, and Kane (clearly corrupted by outsider philosophies, according to Lark) is encouraging Lark to betray her and testify on the abuse that he and his fellow Anointeds have suffered.

"By turns horrifying, hilarious and shocking, FIRST, BECOME ASHES is an unforgettable and unique look at pain, love, perspective and control."

Lark, a true believer in Nova’s magic system and ideals, is horrified to learn that Kane has turned sides, but he is even more surprised to hear Kane call the rituals in which they both engaged “abuse.” What they did to one another and the chastity cages they wore were the tools by which they harnessed their magic. Lark completed every episode of sadomasochism knowing that it was strengthening and honing his powers. So why is Kane now talking about saving Lark and seeing Nova tried for abuse and assault?

After learning that his beloved partner has joined forces with the FBI --- or, in Fellowship speak, a FOE, Force of Evil --- Lark quickly escapes the hotel where the FBI is keeping all rescues from the Fellowship. Unfortunately, he has been trained to meet this harsh reality with paranoia and aggression, and his brainwashing is so thorough, so ingrained, that he is able to ignore even the most obvious red flags. With a warrant out for his arrest and the story of the disbanded cult flashing across every screen, he is mocked by many of the people he sees on the streets. Luckily for him, a comic convention is in town, and when he meets a young man with similar braids as his, he finds an ally in this corrupt world of outsiders. Enter Calvin, a hot Lord of the Rings cosplayer who has dreamed of finding magic in a world that shuns anyone who is different.

Lark soon joins forces with Calvin, and along with Calvin’s best friend, they set out to escape the FBI, bring Kane back to “reality” and save the world in the process. But as much as Calvin wants to believe in Lark’s magic, he knows that the abuses of a cult run deep. As he learns more about Lark’s strengthening rituals, he is forced to question how a system founded in violent abuse with no aftercare could also be the home of real, life-changing magic. By turns horrifying, hilarious and shocking, FIRST, BECOME ASHES is an unforgettable and unique look at pain, love, perspective and control.

Readers of DOCILE will know that Szpara is a confident writer who is comfortable challenging conventions of love, sex and power. By starting this new novel on a momentous occasion in the Fellowship’s history, and endearing us to Lark and his longing for Kane, the author indoctrinates us into the cult of the Fellowship, forcing us to confront reality with the same shock and horror that Lark does. It’s an interesting and quite successful way to highlight the dangers of cult brainwashing, and he is adept at showing us how Lark’s twisted version of reality feels real to him and therefore is worth protecting. The tension in Lark’s character growth comes from Szpara’s careful handling of magic and the unreliable representations of it that make us question whether or not magic --- and therefore Lark’s trust in Nova and the Fellowship --- is real.

However, where Szpara confronted and upended similar notions in DOCILE, FIRST, BECOME ASHES seems to miss the mark. As the trigger warning in the opening of the book will tell you, it includes several graphic descriptions of sadomasochism and sexual content, as well as stark violations of consent. It is no secret that cult leaders often use sexual gratification or limitation as a method of control, but Szpara’s tone borders on erotic in a way that seems to champion this behavior rather than criticize it. This approach is especially jarring when placed against other scenes that are openly pro-queer, resulting in a twisted, unreliable set of morals that gives the narrative an unfinished, rushed feel that was not present in DOCILE.

Having read both novels, I know that Szpara can take down these complicated and layered issues successfully, but FIRST, BECOME ASHES is not as accomplished as its predecessor in this regard.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on April 30, 2021

First, Become Ashes
by K.M. Szpara

  • Publication Date: April 6, 2021
  • Genres: Adventure, Fantasy, Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Tordotcom
  • ISBN-10: 1250216184
  • ISBN-13: 9781250216182