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 Deep”

The Deep

By: Rivers Solomon; with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

Published: November 5, 2019

Genre: Fantasy/Science Fiction/Folklore/Historical Fantasy

            “Our mothers were pregnant two-legs thrown overboard while crossing the ocean on slave ships. We were born breathing water as we did in the womb. We built our home on the sea floor, unaware of the two-legged surface dwellers,” she said. In general, Yetu didn’t tell the Remembrance. She made her people experience it as it happened in the minds of various wajinru who lived it, (Chapter 3). 

            Whether or not the majority of the world wants to admit it, 2019 marks 400 years since the beginning of the African Slave Trade. The first ships holding captive Africans made its voyage to the Americas in order to exploit the resources in those continents. For over 200 years, Africans—men, women and children—were abducted from their homes and families and shipped overseas and sold into slavery. The voyage overseas to the Americas were treacherous due to the conditions abroad the ships and the travel itself. The captives were not only abused, starved and raped, but also were subjected to overcrowded conditions with little to no air circulation. Thus, illness was common throughout these voyages and the ships suffered from the weight of all the people on board. One of the ways the crew resolved the issue of illness and capacity was to throw these terrified people overboard. Even those who weren’t sick (or pregnant) were tied up and thrown into the ocean; and, they were often chained together so none of them could attempt to escape and swim away. Although the imperialist nations continue to gloss over this inhumane era of our history, there is enough testimony and evidence to verify everything about the African Slave Trade as valid. 

            The Deep by Rivers Solomon incorporates this history alongside folklore and culture to tell a story of how and why it is essential to recall history no matter how traumatic it is and to share it with others. At the same time, the idea of maintaining history, culture and identity, and the consequences of those losses are echoed throughout the narrative. In African culture, a community’s historian and storyteller is given the title: griot. The griot is responsible for maintaining all of the stories and the events of that one community. And, it is seen as one of the highest honored positions an individual can train for and be assigned within their community. The practice of there being only one historian and/or griot per group of people is a cautionary tale that will remind readers of The Giver by Lois Lowry.  

            The protagonist is Yetu. She is 35 years-old and she has been her wajinru’s “historian,” or griot, since she was 14. Yetu was chosen to be her people’s historian by the previous one. The historian maintains the entire history of the wajinru (“chorus of the deep”) from when the first babe of the captured Africans were born and survived in the depths of the ocean. Due to the trauma of the first wajinru, one of them is chosen to maintain all of the memories of all of the wajinru so that everyone else can strive and live without those memories weighing them down. Every year, an event known as “The Remembrance” occurs, which involves the historian releasing the memories of the wajinru’s past so they can remember their origins, briefly. Throughout the rest of the year, the historian maintains those memories. Yetu was very young when she was chosen to be the current historian, and she’s found the role to be nothing but a burden. From the perspective of the other wajinru—including Yetu’s mother, Amaba—Yetu neglects some of her responsibilities as historian such as preparing for the Remembrance. What they don’t know is that Yetu holds the memories of ALL of the wajinru—past and present—in her mind, and she remembers EVERYTHING. Most wajinru, including Amaba, forget most things after a short time period. Yetu cannot do that and she often loses herself to the fragments of the memories. After 20 years, Yetu forgets to eat and to sleep, and she’s lost herself to the memories more often than she can remember. Lacking a support system from her people, Yetu performs the Remembrance. However, before she is to reclaim the memories for another year, Yetu flees from the other wajinru and the memories. 

            Once Yetu cannot swim anymore, she finds herself near a small seaside town. There Yetu meets humans who help her survive as she recovers from her flight. She is able to communicate with them because some of the memories of the wajinru are still within her. Yetu befriends Oori, a human who is the sole survivor of a disaster that destroyed her home and killed her entire community. The two females bond over being outcasts and being the historian responsible for ensuring that the history and the legacy of their people do not fade into obscurity, and both women are dealing with their burden differently. Yetu’s mind contains the memories of her tribe, until recently; and, Oori is the last of her people and she doesn’t know what she can do to ensure that her people’s legacy doesn’t become extinct. It is this revelation that makes Yetu aware of how essential her role to her people is and why knowing one’s history, culture and origins is important for survival. From there, Yetu is able to make a compromise between her role and its burden. Then, Yetu recreates the role of historian for posterity. 

            Throughout the narrative, readers experience Yetu’s immaturity and trauma as a historian. It is from Yetu’s point-of-view and stream-of-consciousness that readers experience Yetu’s moments of post-traumatic stress disorder—flashbacks, insomnia, anxiety, self-destructive behavior, withdrawal, etc.,—remind readers that moments of the past are experiences of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Yetu is able to accept her role and admit her mistake, and while some readers might wonder whether or not she has grown more as an individual, they need to be reminded that no one recovers from P.T.S.D. overnight. The use of flashbacks enhance the narrative more towards African history and Yetu’s stream-of-consciousness determines the pace of the story and make Yetu out to be a reliable narrator. 

            The style Rivers Solomon uses for The Deep illustrates the balance between the burden and the importance of one’s history and the dangers of limiting that knowledge to one individual. The mood in this novella is the loneliness and the isolation one can feel even if they are surrounded by family and members of their community. The tone in this story is the responsibility of who maintains the history and the culture of one group and why it should be shared and not limited to one individual. Knowing the past is as important as living in the present for the future.

            The Deep will appeal to all fans of science fiction, fantasy and alternative history. Historians will appreciate the incorporation of facts and how events of the past continue to haunt the present. Folklorists will appreciate how storytellers are regarded and admired for their desire and their ability to pass down culture and information for longevity. The hype surrounding this book was huge and that is partly because the audiobook is narrated by Daveed Diggs. The Deep can be reread and included in the speculative fiction canon.  

            The Deep is a heartbreaking story about history, memory and enduring hardship and responsibility. If one has not read any book by the author, then they can and should start with this novella. This story goes to show how some song lyrics, history and desire can come together to tell a believable tale. The Deep will have you believing in mermaids all over again! 

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