Why You Need to Read: “First, Become Ashes”

First, Become Ashes

By: K.M. Szpara

Published: April 6, 2021

Genre: Urban Fantasy

TRIGGER WARNING: Be advised. This book contains elements of self-harm, imprisonment, rape, torture, abuse, and non-consensual sex. 

I received an advanced copy of this book in exchange for a fair review. All thoughts are mine alone.

            Her voice drips with pity I neither want nor need. This is useless—this whole conversation. Nova said outsiders wouldn’t believe us. Not that we were acting in their best interests, nor that we were Anointed. She warned us about their zealots and skeptics. That I could literally work magic in front of them and they wouldn’t see it. Well, I know myself and I’m not going to waste time or magical energy proving their ignorance to them. I don’t care if Miller believes me, I just need her to uncuff me, (5: Lark/Now). 

            Speculative fiction has emerged to have a fandom which rivals sports fans. The last 50-60 years saw the emergence and the growth of fans of this genre through books, films, and video games. As the fandom and the popularity grew, people started dressing up as their favorite characters and recreating scenes from those media. Various activities—especially, Dungeons & Dragons—are familiar as fans take tropes from these narratives and come up with similar stories. Just like with all stories, there are moments of the good, the bad and the ugly. Most of the time, fans—cosplayers and gamers—tend to leave the ugly out of their “stories.” K.M. Szpara does NOT avoid the ugly in his latest novel, First, Become Ashes, a hybrid of Jonestown and Japanese role-playing games.  

            The protagonist in this novel is Lark, short for Meadowlark. He has spent his entire life in Druid Hill with the Fellowship, training to partake in a quest to save the world. He is one of the Anointed Ones—those gifted with magic and abilities—who will leave his home on his 25th birthday to prove himself by defeating a F.O.E.—“Force of Evil”—or, a monster. However, Lark is a couple of months shy of his 25th birthday. The one who gets to leave Druid Hill first is Kane, who is Lark’s training companion and boyfriend. He is an Anointed One, too; but, since he is older, Kane leaves for his quest first. Lark starts counting down the days until it is his turn to leave and to join Kane. Unfortunately, Kane goes off on a different quest, and it involves the F.B.I. and the S.W.A.T. Team. Kane has decided to put an end to the lies told by their leader, Nova. Kane discovered a long time ago that their lives were a lie. There is no magic, no monsters, and no reason to fight. The lead agent on this investigation is Agent Miller, who knows a lot more about the Fellowship and Nova than she lets on. Agent Miller needs Lark to testify against Nova and the Elders for all of the crimes they’ve committed. Lark refuses to cooperate because he believes Kane became “corrupted” immediately after going on his quest. Lark decides he’s the only Anointed One who can save what is left of the Fellowship. Once he escapes confinement, Lark meets Calvin, an outsider—a super nerd and a professional cosplayer—who is willing to assist Lark on his quest by any means necessary. Accompanying them is Calvin’s friend, Lillian, who is a part-time podcaster. Meanwhile, accompanying Agent Miller’s search for Lark is Deryn, Lark’s older sibling. They were one of the first Anointed Ones before Nova stripped that title from them—as a child—for unknown reasons. They are willing to put an end to the Fellowship due to the harsh treatment they received. All of these characters develop as the story progresses, and readers learn quickly that they are not only individuals who are trying to debunk lies, but also are complex people who had their choices taken away from them, and they are seeking ways to reclaim their lives. It should be mentioned that while Nova is the villain, she is NOT the antagonist. One of the characters mentioned is Lark’s antagonist, but do you know who it is?

            There are 2 plots in this novel. The first plot is a twist on “the hero’s quest.” But instead of the “hero” leaving to “save the world,” the hero is on a “quest” to prove magic is real and the Fellowship is not the “corrupted F.O.E.” The second plot is the investigation of the Fellowship, which is a cult. Readers learn about the cult’s origins, and how and why Kane decided to “betray” the Fellowship. There is one subplot and it develops alongside the two plots, and it is central to the story. The subplot involves the trauma suffered by all of the characters; and, the common theme involves fantasy and gaming. Remember, 2 of the characters did not suffer within the Fellowship, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have personal demons and reality to face. Please keep in mind the trauma suffered by the Fellowship includes: physical and emotional abuse, family separation, isolation, torture, and sexual abuse. While this subplot is essential to the plots, such incidents are common and occur more often than is reported. In other words, the reality within the fiction is too palpable to ignore.

            The narrative is told from the points-of-view of Lark, Kane, Deryn and Calvin. They are all reliable narrators because what they experience relates to the conflicts within the story: the influence the Fellowship has had on the characters and whether or not magic exists. The narrative alternates based on which character is narrating the story. Lark and Calvin’s narratives are in 1st-person and follows a sequence which is told in the present. Lark and Calvin are on a quest, and it takes them further away from what they know as they believe they are getting closer towards fulfilling their quest. Deryn’s narrative is told in 1st-person and is told in the present. Deryn travels with Agent Miller in order to track down Lark. However, Deryn isn’t looking for Lark just because he is their sibling, but because they want vengeance for the treatment they and the others who are not “Anointed Ones” were subjected to by Nova. The more time Deryn spends with Agent Miller, the more of their memories begin to resurface, and they realize there is truth behind Kane’s actions. Kane’s narrative is told in 1st-person, but the sequence is presented in the past. This is because Kane’s narrative is his testimony against the Fellowship to the F.B.I. It is through Kane’s memories and flashbacks (not the same thing), readers learn what really was going on within the Fellowship and how Kane was able to interpret the lies and the abuse in Nova’s teachings, and why he decided to betray them, knowing they were a cult. The narrative goes back-and-forth between the present and the past and it moves among the characters so that the story is complete without any bias, which is essential when referring to cults.

            The style K.M. Szpara uses in First, Become Ashes is a homage to the nerd fandom. Several allusions to fantasy novels, video games, anime, cosplayers, comic-cons, etc., make their way into this novel, and it balances the atmosphere and the conflict presented in the story. And, as a member of this fandom, the message is clear, there is a minuscule part of us who desire such aspects to be real. That is not to say that every mundane thing within our reality can be explained—there are a few living things which break the laws of science (i.e. bumblebees, dolphins, butterflies and moths, etc.)—but, how many people are willing to believe in “other explanations”? Nevertheless, this novel is a cautionary tale as to what can happen when individuals use people in order to fulfill their twisted desires. Both the villain and the antagonist use Lark (and the other members of the Fellowship) to get what they want—one wants dominance and the other wants their beliefs to be validated—and, both leave Lark a broken individual who believes he has to go on his quest so that everything he went through wasn’t for nothing. The mood in this novel is wishfulness. All of the characters long for something, and some of them are willing to do anything to fulfill it. The tone in this novel is the brutality these characters are willing to put themselves through, especially with the conflict of the individual versus society. Keep in mind such treatment and desire can manifest anywhere, and are not limited to cults. 

            The appeal for First, Become Ashes will be positive with discretion. The novel has LGBTQIA+ characters, but the presentation of the cult and the treatment will receive the most attention and criticism. Once again, this book has a Trigger Warning of sadomasochism, sexual and physical and emotional abuse, and it should not be read by anyone who either has issues with these topics or has undergone similar experiences. That being said, this novel will be praised for its themes of “living in the real world,” “life is not a fantasy (story),” and “not everything can provide an explanation.” This novel belongs in the speculative fiction canon in the subgenres urban fantasy and low fantasy. An urban fantasy is a fantasy story associated with rural settings adapted to specific (and often actual) locations. A low fantasy—the opposite of high fantasy—is a fantasy story which presents nonrational occurrences without any causality because they happen in a rational world where such things are not supposed to happen (this story is NOT magic realism!). So, fans of American Gods by Neil Gaiman and A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin will enjoy this book the most. I believe gamers and cosplayers will enjoy this book, too because of the social commentary and the (familiar) criticism mentioned throughout the novel. 

            First, Become Ashes is an excellent blend of fantasy and reality, and a great social commentary. This is one of those books in which the conflict is more memorable than the characters, and that’s a good thing because this plot device will keep readers immersed from start to end, similar to a great video game. It’s hard to believe this is the author’s 2nd novel, but it means readers can look forward to more works from him in the future! 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!

Why You Need to Read: “The Year of the Witching”

The Year of the Witching

By: Alexis Henderson

Published: July 21, 2020

Genre: Dark Fantasy/Occult Fiction

            Immanuelle had always felt a strange affinity for the Darkwood, a kind of stirring whenever she neared it. It was almost as though the forbidden wood sang a song that only she could hear, as though it was daring her to come closer, (Chapter Two). 

            Readers continue to be presented with several new books, many of them by debut authors. Every once in a while, a debut comes along that makes you wonder whether or not that book really is that author’s first book. Alexis Henderson is the latest author to gift readers with her dark fantasy and occult fiction novel, The Year of the Witching.

            Immanuelle Moore is the protagonist in this novel. She is almost 17 years-old and is the illegitimate granddaughter of the town’s midwife, Martha, and carpenter, Abram Moore. The circumstances surrounding her birth and her mother’s, Miriam, death remains a mystery even to her family. Her mother’s “love affair” with her father—Daniel Lewis Ward—an Outskirter, a group of people known for their ebony skin and their own religious practices, resulted with Immanuelle, her parents’ deaths, and her being ostracized by all of the denizens in Bethel. Her only companion is Leah, who is golden-haired, blue-eyed, and “religiously moral.” She is also about to become the latest of a slew of wives of the Prophet, the leader of Bethel. Immanuelle feels lonelier than ever before, especially because her family’s circumstances does not allow for her to have such aspirations. Meanwhile, the Darkwood—the forest that borders Bethel and is said to be the dwelling of four witches—seems to be calling to her, even though it’s forbidden to enter it. However, one night, circumstances lead Immanuelle to enter the Darkwood and to interacting with the witches who live there. Afterwards, she cannot help but feel like something bad is going to happen because of this encounter. Yet, Immanuelle has help from Ezra Ford, the Prophet’s son and successor, who does all he can to protect both Immanuelle and Bethel from the threats brought on by the inhabitants of the Darkwood. Even though Immanuelle is the protagonist, both Leah and Ezra are essential into the growth and the development she undergoes throughout the novel. All three adolescents question the roles they will have to play as both adulthood and dark magic threaten to consume them. And, Immanuelle has to determine whether or not she will follow in her mother’s footsteps.

            The plot of the novel explores the opposing forces of religion and the repercussions they have on individuals who practice them. Ezra is the Prophet’s son and heir, but he doesn’t believe in all of the societal practices his father preaches. Leah is Bethel’s “golden child” who is known for her beauty and her (religious) virtue, which makes her a suitable bride for the Prophet; and yet, she knows that no matter what happens, she cannot hope to go against the teachings of the Church. Immanuelle is the product of two religions and that has labeled her as both an outcast and a target of bullying by the members of the community. When she comes across her mother’s journal, she learns the truth behind her parents’ deaths and her family’s, and the Prophet’s, obsession with her, and her being drawn to the witches. All of these circumstances lead to plagues arriving and afflicting the town of Bethel. There are two subplots in this novel. The first one deals with the concept of history and religion. Just because someone does not practice your faith and/or has different views on the same religion does not make them a heretic. At the same time, the history of one’s religion is no reason for the mistreatment of those who practice the same faith. The second subplot investigates the influence parents have on their children. Immanuelle is Bethel’s reminder of Miriam’s sins, which were believed to be based on the sins of her parents, the grandparents who raised Immanuelle to follow the teachings of the Father. However, if Immanuelle was raised the same way as her mother, then how and why did her mother “go astray,” and what does that mean for Immanuelle, her family, and the town of Bethel? Both subplots are necessary for the plot’s development because they get to the center of the conflict and how it affects everyone in Bethel.

            The narrative is told from Immanuelle’s point-of-view. Readers follow along with her stream-of-consciousness as she figures out how to stop the plagues and to learn the truth about her parents and the real cause of the plagues. The story moves from the present to the past and to the present again as Immanuelle learns of the past from her mother’s journal, from her grandparents, and from Ezra through the Church’s archives. Immanuelle’s discoveries and reactions to them, as well as her fear of being accused of witchcraft, make her a reliable narrator. The narrative focuses on time throughout the story. This presents a sense of urgency that the protagonist faces throughout the narrative. All of these elements make the narrative engaging and easy to follow.

            The style that Alexis Henderson uses is one that is familiar, yet different. The theme of hypocrisy in religion is not new, but the author not only adds the historical aspects of the racism within religion—particularly Christianity, but also delves into two warring faiths and the long-term effects they have on their followers overtime. In addition, the themes of ageism, sexism, abuse of power and blind devotion—which can be found in just about every religion ever to exist in human history—make for the ultimate cautionary tale for anyone who is devoted to their faith. All of the allusions to Biblical names and the tales from the Old and the New Testaments give further insight into the story and what readers should expect from it. The mood in this novel is foreboding. The knowing of misfortune has been on the horizon for the town of Bethel for generations, and it erupts all at once due to both an act innocence and due to generations of malice and corruption. The tone in this novel is rebellion. In this story, rebellion is a double-edged sword; and, this is because those who rebel quietly do not fare any better compared to those who rebel openly. Nevertheless, allowing vices to continue can lead to the destruction of a community and/or religion either from internal or external forces. 

            The appeal for The Year of the Witching will be positive. I was able to read an eARC of this novel, and I read it in 3½ days! Not to mention, this is the author’s debut novel! Even if the subgenres of dark fantasy and occult fiction are not your “go to” reads, you have to admire the story Alexis Henderson put together. Fans of both Alice Hoffman and Louisa Morgan will enjoy this book the most. It needs to be mentioned that due to the religious themes in this novel, fans of both His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman and the Winternight Trilogy by Katherine Arden will find this book appealing as well. The novel blends fantasy, the occult, religion, with a touch of gothic to make this novel a great addition to the speculative fiction canon. This novel has lasting appeal because of the story the author was willing to present as her debut. The Year of the Witching is a standalone novel, but I wouldn’t mind either a continuation or a companion book to this one!

            The Year of the Witching is a fast-paced immersive coming-of-age story, one that will surpass your expectations once you realize that it is a debut novel! While the story of rebellion in a religious and an oppressive society is not new, the idea of witches being real and using religious tropes for revenge is (somewhat) novel and very entertaining. Whether or not this book is to your taste in literature, you will appreciate this new talent and her future books. 

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!   

Why You Need to Read: “Realm of Ash”

The Books of Ambha: #2: Realm of Ash

By: Tasha Suri

Published: November 12, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Coming-of-Age

NOTE: Some minor spoilers from Empire of Sand. You have been warned. 

            “My blood—my Amrithi blood in this loyal Ambhan body—is part of the curse. But it’s also part of the cure. I just don’t know how. But the Emperor’s family, your mistress…they might. Perhaps they’ll find answers in my blood that I can’t. You should send me to them, if they’ll have me,” (Chapter Five). 

            In 2018, a debut fantasy novel based on Indian mysticism was released to praise by readers and critics alike; and, Empire of Sand won the 2019 British Fantasy Award for Best Newcomer and the 2019 Brave New Words Award. In 2019, the follow-up, Realm of Ash, picks up ten years after the events in the first book and answers all of the questions in it. It was a long year to wait to read this book by Tasha Suri, and it was worth it. 

            Arwa, Mehr’s younger sister who was spirited away to safety by their stepmother, Maryam, and their father, is all grown-up (she’s 21) and recently widowed from a massacre at Darez Fort. Instead of returning to Hara to live with her parents, Arwa decides to live in a hermitage of widows (for nobility). At the beginning of the novel, Arwa is plagued by guilt for surviving the massacre, for failing in her duties as a wife (to her stepmother’s grief), and for revealing her heritage of being an Amrithi. Arwa believes Mehr died with the Maha, and her parents did everything they could to make sure Arwa didn’t repeat the same mistakes her sister made. Since Arwa looks more Ambhan (lighter skin tone) than Mehr (darker skin tone), she was taught to blend into Ambhan society and view her Amrithi heritage as a curse. However, the last lesson Mehr taught Arwa about their blood is the reason Arwa survived the massacre, and she doesn’t know how to feel about it. After arriving at the hermitage, Arwa meets Gulshera, another widow with connections to the royal family. Arwa asks Gulshera for the chance to serve the royal family and to save the Empire from ruin, an unfortunate effect of the Maha’s death. At the palace, Arwa meets Jihan, the princess, who tells her her assignment, to assist the Emperor’s blessed (bastard) son, Zahir—Jihan’s brother, with his work in occult arts to seek the Maha’s knowledge. Knowledge that could revive the Empire. Readers will see the resemblance Arwa has to Mehr in how the two sisters were sheltered from the truth of their heritage and the Emperor’s power. The more Arwa learns the more she grows into the person she had to suppress as per her stepmother and (Ambhan) gender role expectations. Arwa develops as both a characters and an individual as she makes her way through the complexities of her new status—widow and tool of the Empire—in a society which believes the past has the answers. 

            The plot of Realm of Ash is the fallout based on the ending of Empire of Sand. The Ambhan Empire has fallen on hard times since the Maha’s death. In addition, Arwa’s father was stripped of his governorship due to his behavior towards the Emperor regarding Mehr. For ten years, Arwa was raised with the goal of restoring her family to their previous status while the Empire moved into decline after 400 years of affluence. Arwa’s widowhood and revealed heritage is the chance for Arwa to restore both her family’s glory and the Empire’s prosperity. However, as Arwa and Zahir study more about the Empire’s past with the Amrithi and learn about the motivations the royal family hope to achieve with this knowledge, the two “illegitimate heretics” must determine other factors for saving the Empire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the truth which is revealed about the Amrithi and their ties to the Emperor’s and the Maha’s rule. The second is the tension amongst the royal siblings as the Emperor is on his deathbed and must name his successor. Both subplots are related because, as Arwa learns, the Amrithi aren’t cursed, but they were coveted for their abilities and their magic, which were used and abused by the Maha and the royal family for their benefit. These revelations comes as a shock to Arwa because it means that the foundations of the Ambhan Empire are built on lies and corruption, and the royal family made sure that those lies became beliefs within the Empire. Of course, the royal family would prefer if Arwa and Zahir would stay focused on gaining the Maha’s knowledge so that everything can go back to the way things were before his death. It’s too bad Arwa has her sister’s temperament and stubbornness for doing the “right” thing. These subplots enrich the plot in that Arwa’s life gets sidetracked again and she has to decide what to do with the truth she’s learned regarding the Empire and her family. Arwa realizes that the Empire, the Emperor and the Maha are at fault, not her sister and not the Amrithi. 

            The narrative is told from Arwa’s point-of-view as she becomes the hope for reviving the Empire. In Empire of Sand, readers learned about the Amrithi and the Maha from Mehr’s P.O.V.; in Realm of Ash, readers learn about the Ambhan and the Emperor from Arwa’s P.O.V. This provides readers with the two halves of the world-building and an understanding of all of the events across both books. In the case of Realm of Ash, Arwa experiences moments of the past in flashbacks as part of the occult rituals she performs with Zahir. In those memories, Arwa witnesses the horrific truth of her Amrithi heritage, but it leads to her accepting and marveling at it, eventually. The narrative presents Arwa’s change in demeanor and personality as she learns to heal from her traumatic experience and the shame she believed she should have for her Amrithi heritage. All of these elements of the narrative make Arwa a reliable narrator whom can be followed by all readers. 

            Tasha Suri continues to use the same style she used in Empire of Sand in Realm of Ash. She presents the Ambhan Empire as a beautiful place with denizens of various social classes and faiths. Only this time, the author puts more emphasis on the consequences of colonialism, parental influences, magic, and societal expectations and practices. The mood is hardship of a declining society and a loss of purpose in life. The tone is how individuals and society can continue to thrive once they find a new purpose and a new way to live, if given the chance. If Empire of Sand focuses on themes of strength and survival, then the themes in Realm of Ash are based on enduring and resilience!

            The appeal of Realm of Ash surpasses its predecessor, thus making the series, and the author, worthy of all of the praise given to it. Fans of fantasy, and the first book, will want to read this book; and, fans of historical fiction might enjoy this book as well. Both Books of Ambha can be read in either order—amidst minor spoilers—and readers will get the complete experience of the world the author created. The same warnings of violence and abuse from the first book are relevant in this one, but given the historical and societal context of the story, those aspects do not affect the way readers will enjoy the story.

            Realm of Ash is an amazing follow-up to Empire of Sand and answers all the questions readers had from the previous book. It is not unusual for the next book in a series to be better than the first, but Realm of Ash is a stronger story dealing with issues of lost, family, and magic. It also adds to the world-building that was half-finished in the first book, providing a complete and beautiful world that is worth saving. This book was in my top five of my favorite speculative fiction books of 2019, and I’m looking forward to reading more books by Tasha Suri.

My Rating: MUST READ IT NOW (5 out of 5)!!!