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 Wolf of Oren-Yaro”

Chronicles of the Bitch Queen, #1: The Wolf of Oren-Yaro

By: K.S. Villoso                                                                                             Audiobook: 14 hours

Published: February 18, 2020                                                          Narrated by: Catherine Ho

Genre: Fantasy

            I was Talyien aren dar Orenar, queen of Jin-Sayeng, daughter of Warlord Yeshin, wife of Rayyel Ikessar, and mother of Thanh. I did not just dream these things—I had a life before all this. I wanted nothing more than to return to it, (Chapter Thirteen: The Dragonlord in Distress).

            Curiosity is an interesting thing. It’s not really an emotion because it provokes thought before emotions. Then again, there are moments when one’s curiosity can lead to a strong feeling: elation, fear, etc. However, when it comes to reading, our curiosity either is sated or is ignored (i.e. you don’t read the book). Yet, author K.S. Villoso titled her series, Chronicles of the Bitch Queen; and, the first book is titled, The Wolf of Oren-Yaro. If those titles don’t capture your attention and pique your curiosity, then I don’t know what will.

            Queen Talyien is the daughter of the last warlord, who led an army in a civil war, which ended with her betrothal and her marriage to the male heir of the opposing side, Prince Rayyel Ikessar. Talyien is the queen of Jin-Sayeng, but her husband left her and their son, Thanh (approx. 2 years-old at the time) the night before their coronation. Five years later, Talyien receives a letter from Rayyel, stating they should meet in Anzhao City, which is in the Zarojo Empire, which is across the sea. Although her council advises her against the meeting, Talyien makes the journey for the sake of her son. Once there, things don’t go as planned, and Talyien finds herself alone in a foreign empire, with assassins chasing her through the streets. With her allies and her guardsmen dead and/or captured, Talyien must rely on her skills and on her reputation as a lethal warrior, and as a “non-traditional female.” Talyien has a reputation of being rash, violent, stubborn and flawed, but she is nurturing, observant, and quick. Talyien develops as a character in that she must remember her status and embrace the demeanor she spent the last five years distancing herself from because it’s the only way she is going to survive her ordeal and return home. Fortunately and unfortunately, Talyien is not alone on her journey. The first person who is willing to help Talyien is Khine, a con artist. The second person is Lo Bahn, one of the Lords of Anzhao City. The third person is the (Fifth) son of the Emperor of the Zarojo Empire. Just like Talyien, there are more to these individuals than their facades.

            The plot is straightforward. A queen travels to a foreign land to meet with her estranged husband, the prince—for he was never crowned, they are attacked by assassins and are separated, leaving the queen alone and without allies as she hustles and fights her way home. That is the plot. The story is more complex. Throughout the story, Talyien struggles with her actions of the past and the present as she wrestles with the circumstances which led her to her current predicament. Her father’s legacy and parenting haunts her, and her nature turns people off. However, it is because of her upbringing as future queen, and as a “non-traditional” female that Talyien is able to survive her husband’s absence and survive in the Zarojo Empire. The subplot is all of the political and the historical moments mentioned throughout the novel. It is essential because readers learn of Jin-Sayeng’s history, of the war led by Talyien’s father which led to Talyien and Rayyel’s betrothal, and the real ongoings within the Zarojo Empire. In all, the plot develops at an appropriate rate alongside both the story and the subplot. 

            The narrative is told from Queen Talyien’s point-of-view, and the sequence moves between the present and the past. The past is told as flashbacks as Talyien recalls her meeting Rayyel for the first time and their tumultuous courtship throughout their childhood. Talyien remembers all of the harsh lessons her father gave her about ruling, marriage, and warfare; and, she cannot determine whether or not it is due to guilt or to desperation that she hears her father’s voice. The present is told through Talyien’s stream-of-consciousness, which lets the readers in on all of the emotions Talyien feels and expresses: fear, anger, rage, sadness, etc. All of Talyien’s thoughts make her a reliable narrator, which makes the narration easy to follow. 

            K.S. Villoso presents a fantasy story based on Asian influences. In addition, she wrote a narrative which uses realism to drive the story. If you found yourself lost in a foreign country, then what would you do? If you couldn’t trust anyone in that scenario, then what would you do to get yourself out of it? Queen Talyien is in survival mode, and while her training and her demeanor are viewed as “non-feminine,” those characteristics are why Talyien is able to survive her ordeal. She has to fight her way out of Anzhao City, literally. Then, she has to fight again, over and over. Many fantasy stories include scenarios where the protagonists comes out of a bad situation unscathed, physically and emotionally, but Villoso delivers the reality of such scenarios as cautionary tales. The reality is that not everyone wants to help you when you need help, and there are others who see your identity as a way to benefit themselves. The mood of this novel is hostility, and the tone is enduring (a bad situation). In other words, when you find yourself in a hostile environment, endure it until you can depart from it. 

            The appeal for The Wolf of Oren-Yaro have been positive. This novel was first published in 2018 as an indie book before the series was picked up by Orbit. Critics, readers and other authors have had nothing but praise for this book, and it is the same for me. This book is a great addition to the fantasy canon. And yes, readers and fans of Asian inspired fantasy will enjoy this book the most; and, it should not be overlooked by other fans and readers of the genre. The Ikessar Falcon, Book 2 in the Chronicles of the Bitch Queen trilogy, will be released on September 22, 2020. I’m just as excited as everyone else is for the sequel! I listened to the audiobook, which was narrated by Catherine Ho—who will be narrating the sequel as well. Not only does she do an amazing job with voicing Queen Talyien and making her sound as fierce as the author made her out to be, but also she was a huge help with every pronunciation of all of the names of the characters and the locations. I wouldn’t have been able to sound them out on my own.

            The Wolf of Oren-Yaro is a fantasy story about a “non-traditional” queen who must rely on her “true nature” in order to survive an unconventional situation. While the plot may seem “unrealistic,” the reality of it is very realistic because readers are not used to having a royal female save herself from such plights. This makes for a unique tale in that the protagonist is the heroine in this story. The author does an amazing job in giving readers a character who must balance her identity and her kingdom. Do not miss out on this book!

My Rating: Enjoy It (4.5 out of 5).