I have to start this piece the same way I began my review of K.M. Szpara’s Docile, which is with a content warning for All of the Things. If you have ever seen a content warning on anything and thought “Yeah, I don’t need this,” it’s fair to say that K.M. Szpara’s work is not going to be for you, and given that both of his books so far have been standalone and required the same content warnings, it’s probably safe to decide that things like rape, sexual assault and torture are probably going to be themes that his entire body of work is going to be dealing with and walk away. And that’s fine. Nobody has time to read everything even if we wanted to, and you never have to justify choosing not to spend your money and your time on something.
For what it’s worth, First, Become Ashes is, for me at least, a less traumatizing read than Docile was. This book is the story of Meadowlark, a 24-year-old who was raised in a cult that lives in a converted zoo in the middle of Baltimore (Baltimore? I think it was Baltimore. Some city, it doesn’t really matter) called the Fellowship of the Anointed. Lark is raised to believe that he has magical abilities, that the outside world– which is more or less indistinguishable from our modern world– is full of monsters and evil beings, and that on his 25th birthday he will venture forth from the Fellowship’s headquarters to go on a quest and slay a monster. His partner Kane, a month older than him, leaves on his quest, and two weeks later the FBI raids the compound and takes everyone into custody.
(One common theme of the criticism of this book is that the book utterly ignores the other members of the cult– suggested to be dozens of people, at least– while just following the handful of main characters, and that’s fair. Don’t expect to find out what happened to anyone other than the two-and-a-half or so POV characters who were inside the walls.)
That’s just the setup, of course. Lark escapes FBI … I’m gonna say custody, because while he’s not being charged with anything it’s always pretty clear that they don’t want him to leave— and tries to go on his quest anyway, and it turns out that Kane was instrumental in bringing the FBI down on the Fellowship, and Lark gets hooked up with some cosplayers, of all people, who help him out on his quest, and this is the part where the book is a little more palatable than Docile, because there’s at least some consensual sex in this thing(*). And of course the FBI is trying to bring him back in, and it turns out that one of the cosplayers he hooks up with has a very large online following, so there’s this whole influencer layer on top of that as these two enlist their online communities to help Lark out.
The book plays very coy throughout most of its length with whether the Fellowship actually has magical abilities or not, which is what tilts this book from trauma fiction into the fantasy genre. Lark is forever trying to cast spells to protect himself, to ward or unlock or lock doors, and to communicate with other Fellowship members who are far away, and … sometimes they seem to work? And sometimes they don’t, but he usually has reasons why they don’t? And sometimes other people are like “Oh, this is what must have happened,” and maybe that was it but maybe Lark actually can do magic? And because this is a K.M. Szpara book it turns out that the way your magical abilities are unlocked and restored is through pain, because we can’t not have some sadomasochism in the mix. The question is, I think, finally actually resolved at the end of the book, but I won’t spoil how.
As I said, this is in some ways an easier book to read than Docile was, and partially because of that it’s more straightforwardly enjoyable than Docile was, although I’m not convinced it’s a better book, because I think Docile was a little more intellectually interesting than First, Become Ashes ended up being. If you read and enjoyed Docile, I’d definitely suggest checking this book out as well, but if you passed on the first it’s probably safe to pass on this as well. I don’t know that this will end up on my best-of list at the end of the year, but I read it in a day and barely put it down, so that’s got to count for something.
(*) I had this half-assed theory while I was reading Docile that the sex in the book, which was one hundred percent nonconsensual, was meant to be alienating to the reader, and it still kind of weirds me out to see people describe that book as erotica. This book is more unambiguously erotica than Docile, because at least two of Lark’s partners are consensual. There are still some moments in the book that are unquestionably rape and/or assault, though, so don’t let that drag you into a feeling of safety; this book still earns its content warnings.