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 Girl in the Tower”

Winternight Trilogy, #2: The Girl in the Tower

By: Katherine Arden

Published: December 5, 2017

Genre: Fantasy/Historical Fiction/Folklore/Magic Realism/Coming-of-Age

            Highborn women, who must live and die in towers, were much given to visiting. Now and again, they stayed overnight for company, when their husbands were away, (1: The Death of the Snow-Maiden).

            Folklore maintains traditions and cultures that are passed down from generation to generation. Since many of the stories, traditions and foods are shared through practice and oral tradition instead of being written down, many variants of folklore exist. The most popular example of multiple variants is the story, “Cinderella.” Every era and culture has their “version” of “Cinderella,” which contains the same elements (i.e. stepmother and magic) alongside the region’s culture. Then, there is the concept of expanding on these tales. Disney has done this with Maleficent and others, and Katherine Arden has done this with Vasilisa the Beautiful in her Winternight Trilogy. She provides more backstory of Vasya in The Girl in the Tower, the sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale

            The story reintroduces readers to Olga, Vasya’s older sister who left Lesnaya Zemlya for Moscow for marriage, who is now the Princess of Serpukhov. 10 years have passed since she and her older brother, Aleksandr Peresvet—or Sasha, left their family, and both of them have settled to life in the capital. Olga has two children—Marya and Daniil—and is expecting her third; Sasha is a monk and an adviser to Dmitrii Ivanovich, the Grand Prince of Moscow. Brother Sasha has returned from a journey back home, with a traveler from Lesnaya Zemlya. Yes, Konstantin Nikonovich has managed to attach himself to the rest of Vasya’s family. Meanwhile, Sasha and the Grand Prince meet with a boyar—Kasyan Lutovich of Gosudar—over his concerns regarding bandits. As Sasha and Kasyan travel out of Moscow to investigate, their party runs into Vasya and her stallion, Solovey. Vasya has been forced into exile from her home, and refuses to marry or to join a convent, so she rides in search of freedom and a new identity. When she is reunited with the rest of her family, she goes by the alias, Vasilii Petrovich, the youngest brother of Brother Sasha and Princess Olga. While Vasya gets to experience the freedom she’s always wanted, she must heed the warnings of her family of disguising herself as a male in the Russian court, as well as staying hidden from her enemies both old and new. Vasya undergoes the most development as a character as she continues to grow into the person she want to be. Meanwhile, readers learn of the complexity of Sasha and Olga as they try to protect their sister while conforming to their roles and society’s expectations. 

            The plot involves the aftermath of the events in The Bear and the Nightingale. Vasya is no longer welcomed at Lesnaya Zemlya, and after “rejecting” Morozko again, she travels the Russian wilderness on Solovey—the stallion given to her by Morozko and communicating with the chyerti, until she meets up with Sasha and the party tracking down a group of bandits. For her role, Vasya is hailed a “hero,” but must call herself a male so she is not labeled a “witch” again. Prince Dmitrii is pleased with Vasilii’s bravery and with knowing of “his” relation to Sasha, Vasilii is invited to court against Sasha’s wishes. Once in Moscow, Vasya must learn court etiquette, how to humble those who envy her, and keep her “Gifts” to herself. If any or all her secrets are revealed, then the consequences will be dire. There are two subplots in this novel. The first is the mystery surrounding Kasyan Lutovich. Why did he travel to Moscow when his village was attacked by bandits? And, what does he have against the Grand Prince, Brother Sasha, and Vasilii? The second subplot involves the old magic that struggles to survive in Moscow. In fact, there might be another who can help the denizens remember the old ways, but Vasya might have to earn their trust before assisting them.

            The narrative in The Girl in the Tower is entwicklungsroman, or “novel of character development.” Even though Vasya is an adolescent, she still has some growing up to do before she can have her bildungsroman experience. That is not to say she isn’t learning in this story. Vasya learns more about the various chyerti she encounters and what they want from her. At the same time, Vasya continues to struggle with her identity in a changing Russia as forces—both human and magical—threaten to upset the order of things. There are multiple points-of-view within the narrative which provides the readers with the knowledge of everything that is going on. The narration follows a sequence that is told in present time, with the exception of Part II, which provides a flashback of events. The streams-of-consciousness of Vasya, Sasha, Olga and Konstantin allows for the narrative to be followed, although only the reader(s) know which characters are the reliable narrators. 

            The style Katherine Arden uses in this novel provides a deeper look into Russian folklore and culture, mixed with familiar fairy tale tropes. Readers reacquaint themselves with a fierce heroine, innocent princesses, a dashing prince, and magical beings while absorbing Russian folklore and history. While the themes of religion, sex and gender, political structure, and societal expectations are repeated, the themes of identity and family are explored further in The Girl in the Tower; and, a few clues surrounding Vasya’s family heritage are revealed. The mood in this novel is loyalty. Should one be more loyal towards their family over royalty? Should one choose religion over family? The tone of the novel is choice. Who deserves loyalty and why? The choice one makes about their life and themselves while knowing the consequences of those choices are mentioned over and over throughout the book. Making choices and how those choices affect others is explored in this story as well. Once again, the Author’s Note, Glossary, and A Note on Russian Names are a helpful in following and in comprehending the terminology in this novel. 

            The appeal for The Girl in the Tower matches the first book. Both readers and critics agree that this sequel is a strong follow up to The Bear and the Nightingale. Fans of Naomi Novik and S.A. Chakraborty will enjoy this series the most. And, it is a great addition to both the fantasy and the folklore canons. Vasya’s story concludes in The Winter of the Witch. It is safe to say that both readers and fans will NOT be disappointed with how the trilogy will end. 

            The Girl in the Tower is a strong sequel that does not slow down the pace of the trilogy. Fans of fairy tales and folklore will appreciate the homage the author gives them; and, readers will enjoy how the “old beliefs” played their part in the world-building of the narrative, and in the culture of a nation. Katherine Arden does NOT disappoint her readers. 

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