#REVIEW: First, Become Ashes by K.M. Szpara

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.

#REVIEW: DOCILE, by K.M. Szpara

First things first:

CONTENT WARNING: While I don’t think the review itself is going to be a trigger risk, DOCILE’s back cover warns of “forthright depictions and discussions of rape and sexual abuse,” and I would add warnings for confinement and torture to that as well. Go NOWHERE NEAR THIS BOOK if that will be unhealthy for you.

As is my usual tradition, rather than beginning this by talking about the book I just read, I’ll talk about me a bit. First, I probably should have bought Docile at C2E2, as K.M. Szpara was there and I got two other autographs from authors who were literally sitting at the same table as him. In fact, I think S.L. Huang was sitting next to him. It ended up getting ordered a week or two after getting home instead, so it was a little cheaper but it’s not autographed.

Second: without getting too far into the details, my reaction to this book was probably somewhat informed by the fact that I’ve had to have a stern conversation or two with credit card companies since my mother passed away in January. The notion that at some point in the future debt might be made inheritable has a bit more salience with me right now than it might otherwise. (And, because I don’t want people reading into this too much, let me be clear that we aren’t talking about a huge amount of money here or anything– but the conversations still have to be had.)

This book is a hell of a thing, y’all. I described it on Twitter right after I finished it as the best book I’ve read this year, which, okay, it’s only April, but I’m in lockdown so I’m forty books in already– and a few hours later I kind of want to walk away from the word best but it is certainly the most interesting book I’ve read this year, and the most thought-provoking book I’ve read this year, and it’s the one I most want to find three or four other people who have read it and just sit around and talk about it for a couple of hours. “Best” doesn’t ever mean the same thing to any two people, and this book definitely has some … problematic aspects? Starting with that content warning up there, so there are already a lot of people I can’t recommend this to, and I was going to save the links for later in the piece but the book has nothing to say about race, which for a book set in future America that is effectively about slavery, is at the very least a pretty substantial omission.

This is, in other words, one of those books that some people are going to hate, and I’m not going to put myself in the position of arguing with those folks; that just wasn’t my experience of the book. Your mileage will vary, of course.

At any rate: let’s get to the premise, at least. Docile is set at some unclear amount of time in the future, somewhere outside of Baltimore. Income inequality has increased to the point where there are literal trillionaires out there walking about, but the majority of people are buried in debt, which has been made legally inheritable– so each generation is finding itself in a deeper hole than the one before it. One way out is by finding someone wealthy to buy you out of your debt, becoming what’s called a Docile. A contract is signed, and Dociles have certain rights (the book isn’t a hundred percent clear about how often these rights are honored, but they aren’t treated as a joke) but it is possible to sign for a lifetime of servitude if your debt is high enough, to clear the debt of the rest of your family. Most Dociles take a drug called Dociline, which effectively erases free will in the person taking it, making them a perfect servant. Some Dociles are used for labor, and others become personal servants and/or, effectively, sex slaves. The book’s main character, Elisha, signs a lifetime contract to become a Docile at the beginning of the book, selling three million dollars’ worth of debt and also snagging a thousand dollars a month in a stipend for his family.

His Patron is Alex Bishop III, the other POV character of the book, who is the scion of the family that invented Dociline. And Elisha, whose mother was also a Docile and who is suffering lingering effects from the drug, refuses to take Dociline, which he has a right to do. Which means that Alex, who has taken him on as a house servant and sex toy, has to train/brainwash him to become a proper Docile.

There’s a lot going on.

The front cover of the book contains the words THERE IS NO CONSENT UNDER CAPITALISM right front and center where you can’t miss it, and consent is one of the many themes of the book– others include income inequality, individual free will and autonomy, personhood, and the predatory nature of capitalism itself, and the book has an awful lot to say. I don’t want to spoil a lot of the details, especially since I was utterly wrong about a twist that I spent most of the book assuming was coming and never saw, but Szpara is a hell of a writer and I blew through this 500-page book in, basically, three big gulps.

Alex is, to put it very mildly, not very nice to Elisha at first, although the relationship between the two changes radically over the course of the book– and just how real the relationship is is one of the things that the book interrogates. After the first time they have sex Elisha openly wonders to himself if he’s been raped, and do not go near this book if the frequent explicit sex scenes are going to be a problem for you.

(This is another place where the reaction to the book is going to be all over the place– I would never, in a million years, have thought of this book as erotica, but apparently there are some folks out there who are treating it like it is? And you’re going to react very differently to this book if you’re reading it to get off or because you enjoy BDSM as opposed to, say, reading it because it’s a sci-fi dystopia and that’s a thing you like. Frankly I find the idea of people reading this for titillation to be a bit creepy, or at least the idea that you’d read it for that reason and be successful. You do you, I guess, but while there aren’t any sort of stereotypical Brutal Stranger Rape Scene type of things that tend to make me put books down, nearly all of the sex in this book is, let’s say, at least squicky about consent, and there’s at least a couple of scenes where the goal is absolutely Elisha’s sexual humiliation.)

So, yeah: Docile is problematic and messy and gross and I found it utterly fascinating and I have no idea what K.M. Szpara’s next book is going to be but he can have my money right now. If you read this and you’re still interested in the book, absolutely check it out, because I want people to talk to about it, but if you feel like it’s not for you I’d pay close attention to that feeling and take it seriously. I’m glad I read it, and it’s going to stick with me for a while, but it is definitely not for everyone.

12:31 PM, Friday, April 10: 473,073 confirmed cases, 17,036 American dead.