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)!!!

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: The Spies”

The episode starts with a reminder that “The Gobblers” are kidnapping children—and keeping them in nets, cages and locked rooms—and have been discreet, until the Gyptians started to track their movements. Meanwhile, Mrs. Coulter abuses her connections with the Magisterium in order to find Lyra. And, it’s obvious that while Mrs. Coulter wants Lyra back, she’s doing it in a way which presents her in a way everyone can see why Lyra ran away from her in the first place. 

            Lyra Belaqua is rescued and taken into the care by the Gyptians. They have connections to Lord Asriel and are planning to rescue the missing children—as soon as they discover where they are being kept. It is during her stay with them that Lyra learns more about her origins and the alethiometer. Her reaction to the truth about her parents is believable and appropriate. Mrs. Coulter’s reaction to Lyra running away from her is not. Even the Magisterium is horrified by what Mrs. Coulter does in order to find her. It seems that it’s not only the alethiometer that the Magisterium has aversions against. 

            The Gyptians are willing to do more to figure out what’s going on with the missing children than the authorities. They have a plan—and allies—waiting to be carried out. Two of the Gyptians decide that having concrete evidence is better than traveling on gossip, so they continue their investigation against orders. At this point, it’s clear that the Magisterium is involved, but as to the how and the why, viewers will have to wait and see. 

            In our world, Lord Carlo Boreal—the man who works with the Magisterium—continues his search into the identity and the mystery of Dr. Stanislaus Grumman and whether or not he managed to “crossover” from one world to another, a theory Lord Asriel insists is the truth. The results his informer uncovers is interesting and shocking. This scene is essential to the plot of the story because it delves more into the idea of “other worlds” and why it remains a mystery to everyone. Book readers will know exactly what I’m getting at, but that’s all I’ll say, for now.  

            The Spies is the episode in which the plots in London wrap up and the story and the characters travel to the North to rescue the children and to learn why they were taken in the first place. This is the shift in the story in which the audience—both readers and viewers—have been waiting for since the cast was announced. This episode reiterates the dangers Lyra has been shielded from her entire life, but with her recently acquired knowledge, she knows she cannot return to Jordan College without Roger. 

TV Episode Review: “His Dark Materials: The Idea of North”

The episode wastes no time resuming where it left off. Lyra Belaqua arrives in London with Mrs. Coulter, and Roger arrives in London to where the other kidnapped children are being held, including Billy Costa. Both children have no idea why there are wanted, but they have no choice but to go along with their circumstances. But, it’s clear that Mrs. Coulter is NOT to be trusted. 

            Mrs. Coulter is a villain whose motivations remain unknown, for now. Yet, this adaptation presents her in a way that wasn’t seen before in the movie or in the books. It’s obvious Mrs. Coulter is struggling with both the actions and the position she’s found herself in, but she is hard to read by everyone, so she remains a mystery. As of right now, Mrs. Coulter is breaking because for all of her composure, she has moments of rage. Something Lyra experiences firsthand, and it scares her. 

            Meanwhile, the Magisterium is investigating Lord Asriel’s “discovery” and the true purpose of his research. The crypts at Jordan College seem to be a very popular place because everyone finds themselves there eventually. I would use the terms heresy and hypocrisy to describe the Magisterium. While it is obvious the scholars at Oxford wonder about Lord Asriel’s theory about Dust and other worlds, it appears that the Magisterium has some knowledge about it already, and they use it to their advantage. 

            Billy and Roger are minor characters whose roles are emerging into the plot. The Gyptians are searching for the children in London, but they always arrive just too late to rescue them. After they are moved, Mrs. Coulter arrives and a scene from the books is presented for the readers; then again, the viewers see more of Mrs. Coulter’s character in the scene as well. 

            Lyra is known for being an explorer, like her uncle(?), and she knows something is going on with Mrs. Coulter. However, everything is kept under lock-and-key, so Lyra finds another way to get the information she seeks. What she finds leaves more questions than answers, but she knows that she’s not safe, especially with the Magisterium hanging around Mrs. Coulter. 

            The Idea of North is an episode that focuses on world-building and character development. A lot of it comes from the books, but there are several additional scenes that embellish the adaptation further. The episode moves towards the darker side of the story, the same dark side that Lyra was shielded from at Jordan College. We get a look into what is happening in London, in Oxford, and in Oxford (not a typo). Lyra, Mrs. Coulter, Billy and Roger, the Gyptians and the Magisterium are participating in something bigger than they believed originally. And, there is more to come. The plot develops too, but this is the chance to learn how the characters fit into the plot as it continues to develop.

My Rating: 9.5 out of 10.