Reviews for First, Become Ashes, by K.M. Szpara

domreadsall's review

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challenging dark tense fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character
  • Strong character development? It's complicated
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? It's complicated
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

2.0

 After enjoying Szpara’s debut novel, Docile—while also recognizing and acknowledging the important critiques around how race was represented within it—I wanted to give his sophomore work a shot. I’m a sucker for cult stories, unreliable narrators, messy relationships, and explorations of deep rooted trauma, especially when they involve queer characters and are written by a queer author, and that’s what I thought I would be getting out of this. And I did get that… sort of? The ‘sort of’ part is more where my critique of First, Become Ashes rests.

Before we begin, I want to preface this review by stating that my rating isn’t influenced by the content warned for at the beginning of the book: “explicit sadomasochism and sexual content, as well as abuse and consent violations, including rape.” I can confirm those are all present and in many cases rendered in excruciating detail, so if any of those themes are upsetting to you at all, please give this one a pass. Having spent so much time in the realm of fanfiction (which is wonderful, contains many valid and beautiful stories both explicit and for general audiences, and is a valid form of writing and reading and personal exploration), there’s… y’all, there’s not a lot I HAVEN’T seen at this point. The two stars is not for the content that is sometimes deeply disturbing, sometimes charged and erotic, and sometimes a deliberate mixture of the two many may find challenging or not for them.

The story follows three primary POVs: Lark, our protagonist and Anointed one who is deeply entrenched in the abuse and beliefs of the Fellowship; Kane, his Anointed partner in multiple senses of the word who leaves Lark and then shows up again during the FBI raid on the Fellowship that opens up the book; and Calvin, successful cosplayer, influencer, and all around nerd. We also have Deryn, a non-binary POV character who believes themself to be Lark’s sibling, who has chapters sporadically throughout the novel. In addition to these four rotating POVs, we also have different time lines, split into Now/’Confidential’ (Past).

I think this novel suffered for the jarring and tonally dissonant mashing up of time lines. In the now, we follow Lark’s journey after the cult is busted but while he still believes he needs to go on his quests to kill ambiguously referenced ‘monsters’, teaming up with Calvin after they encounter one another at a convention by chance. From numerous pop culture references—including 6 or 7 Harry Potter references, which truly I thought we were done with—to wild treks in the woods, to learning how to use a cell phone, to sadomasochistic rituals on the side of the highway to recharge ‘magic’, to sensual hair washing, the Now time line is all over the place for me. Even with the wide swathe of topics covered in the Now, I could still get on board with it if it was more focused on Lark and how he comes to terms with the raid on the Fellowship and his subsequent entry into the ‘real’ world.

However, the juxtaposition of the ‘Confidential’ time line, which largely deals with Kane recounting the massive amounts of trauma and abuse the members of the Fellowship underwent (and contains the most intense, though not all, of the content warnings listed at the beginning of the book/review) made the structure of this book hard to follow. I don’t feel this novel was well served by the insertion of Massive Trauma, Stage Left after the chaotic modern day shenanigans of the other time line. A narrative digging deep into the Fellowship and its abuses, while it would have been hard to read, would have made for a more compelling story. As it stands, even though I don’t believe this was the intent of choosing to interweave the two stories, Kane’s ‘Confidential’ time line ended up feeling wildly jarring and out of place. It seemed positioned for shock value in some cases and taboo titillation—which again, your kink is not my kink—in others which disrupted the coherency of the story. Add in Deryn’s POV, which I’m still not sure what it aimed to accomplish aside from a thin link to ideas about familial connection and redemption (even though hey, non-binary character who uses they/them pronouns, cool), and you have a tangled mess of elements pulling in several entirely separate directions.

The other main reason this book didn’t work for me was a lack of character motivation. We are told Lark needs to kill a monster, but we are not sold on the why other than ‘he believes it’, and the comparatively little space we get of him unpacking his trauma feels rushed. We are meant to believe Calvin would leave his normal, successful life complete with friends and support systems on two premises: that he’s so desperate to feel special he wants to believe ‘magic’ exists, and that Lark looks super hot dressed as an elf. Kane has the strongest and most sensible motivations in the beginning, but some of the choices he makes late game are perplexing and nonsensical to me. And again, beyond Deryn’s conviction that a blood relation means something, I wasn’t sold on why they chose to do the things they did within the novel beyond the motivations I was told and not shown.

Add in weak antagonists who are poorly developed or taken off screen without a satisfying payoff for the reader, women painted exclusively as sidekicks or villains yet again, and several key elements of the worldbuilding left ambiguous to the point of ‘frustrating’ instead of ‘intriguing’, and I sadly have to say First, Become Ashes wasn’t for me.

Your mileage, of course, may vary. I would have loved to see either the cult trauma or the (anti?) hero’s journey story lines delved into more deeply rather than the confusing mash that was the two. The jury is out at this point if I will be picking up another Szpara novel; despite his exploration of topics I SHOULD be interested in, I think there’s just too much of a differential in the lenses we approach them through. As long as you are in a space to handle the provided content warnings, I think those who choose to pick it up will have strong opinions one way or the other about First, Become Ashes. It’s not a story that provides a lot of room for a middle of the road opinion, and unfortunately I fell on the less favourable side.

Thank you to Tor and NetGalley for an advance copy in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own. 

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aquavenatus's review

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dark fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? No
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

5.0

You can read my complete review here: https://mistyaquavenatus.com/2021/02/20/why-you-need-to-read-first-become-ashes

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elliotvanz's review

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adventurous emotional tense medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character
  • Strong character development? It's complicated
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

3.0

I'm really on the fence about this one. It has plenty of ingredients I find intriguing: unreliable narration, cults, queer romance, and overall weirdness. The pacing kept me reading and I whipped through this fairly swiftly. It falls into the category of stories that are super messed up, which is usually something I find intriguing, but was at times really uncomfortable. (This book qualifies for pretty much every trigger warning connected to abuse I can think of, and then some.) I never really fully connected to this narrative though. I appreciate that Szpara wanted to keep the nature of reality ambiguous - is there really magic in this world, or is it all a delusion/metaphor? - but I wanted a hard answer on that, and the doubt made it difficult for me to connect to anyone emotionally. I spent most of my time with this story hunting for clues, analyzing, and just trying to answer that one central question. As a result I never fully invested in the rest. This won't bother some people, so your milage may vary. 

Here's the thing: I'm just not sure Szpara's books are for me. They keep me reading, and have elements I find really interesting, but I come out of them with really mixed feelings and wishing I had read a different story than the one I got. This is just a personal taste thing. I think a lot of people will really love this one. (I also think a lot of people will find this repellant.) I'm glad it's out there, and I don't regret reading it, but ultimately it's just not my cup of tea.

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aconitecafe's review

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dark emotional reflective sad tense medium-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes

5.0

 K.M. Szpara is a master of writing traumatic experiences, and the road to recovery. Docile was one of my favorite reads from last year. So when I received the email from NetGalley announcing that I was approved for a copy of First, Become Ashes I squealed out loud. I thought I was prepared to be broken and rebuilt. But no. I wasn't prepared at all.

Every point of view in this book is masterfully constructed. The profound level of anguish within each chapter draws you in and doesn't let go. I think I read this book in less than 24 hours. I just couldn't put it down. I had to know if the characters made it out of their mental struggles, and were able to see the other side. If Lark can find the rainbow with everything that he experienced, that has to mean their is hope for the rest of us right?

Having read many accounts from outsiders looking in on cults, it was refreshing in a terrifying way to see the innerworkings of a mind within the followers (or anointed). We see the news of cults being "liberated" and often think, "so great those people were freed from a crazy person". But it's not that simple. Real people believed with everything they had in that person. There are real minds facing cognitive dissonance that can't be cured by someone saying "it wasn't real". You can't overcome that level of cognitive dissonance without first burning everything you are as a person, and rebuilding yourself from the ashes.

The way the author tackled this 'after it falls' period, dripped with the feeling that the author did the leg work to understand what goes into being devoted to a cult. Having read Docile, I couldn't imagine any other author writing these experiences.

I was also thankful that the story does not focus on what was done to them during their time behind the gates. Like Docile, the book sets the stage by touching on each aspect of the trauma but lets your mind fill in the rest. By doing this, it gave the book a faster pace, I could envision all the horrors without having to read each transgression on the page. The day to day life while in the cult would have been a book in itself, and that wasn't this story.

Larks journey is empowering in ways I would have never expected. From the connections he makes with outsiders, to the way he comes to terms with his reality being shattered, it's a must read ride. But it's not just him. Every point of view character in this book has a journey that is inspiring, surprising and well written. They were real people that we all know in life.

Calvin was every nerd, wishing the lord of the rings was a place we could visit. I was so thankful for the add in of this con / nerd duo. The two of them brought a comic relief that broke up the horrors of the cult in the right way. It bridged the magic of the cult with the magic of the outside world in a way that amplified the story.

The use of pronouns, gender and sexuality is well crafted. Loved how real it felt, flowing off the characters tongue with ease, not awkwardness or trepidation in the other characters response. It was just apart of society. Normal.

Finally, the use of magic. I don't want to give away spoilers, and it is hard to discuss this aspect of the book without doing so because it was woven into the plot so masterfully you have to read it to understand how much mind f*ckery is going on with it. I mean it's a cult, the magic was obviously a lie. Right? Was it a lie? I NEED TO KNOW.

If you loved Docile, you'll love this book.

Note: LGBT Rep. HP Mention. 

Trigger Warnings: Rape, abuse, ptsd, explicit sex, sex with minors. 

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faithfullygeeky's review

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5.0

"And yet, I went. I went because it was expected of me. Because that was my destiny. Because I was Anointed."

Lark is an Anointed One, one of the chosen who are trained from childhood to rid the world of monsters and restore humanity. Just months shy of his quarter century and his first quest his home of Druid Hill is raided by FOEs who were brought by his partner Kane. Now Lark must decide if he still believes in magic or if the outsiders who tell him he was abused as part of a cult are telling the truth. There's only one way to find out and that is to undertake his quest and head West.

K.M. Szpara's FIRST, BECOME ASHES is at times both moving and traumatizing, fully earning every content warning given. Yet it earns the weight of these traumas through characters who are both flawed and innocent, implicated and exonerated. It follows the events of Lark's quest and Kane's decision to betray the group, as well as another cult member who may not have understood what was happening around them and a cosplayer who just wants to believe in magic. Ultimately this is a story of healing and the highly individual journey that healing can take.

Please note that this book comes with content warnings for explicit sadomasochism, sexual content, abuse, and consent violations, but it also brought this reader real joy.

katherinenzr's review

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5.0

Lark has spent the last 24 years of his life raised to believe that on his 25th birthday he will journey into the world to slay monsters and save the human race. However, three months before he’s supposed to do this, his home is raided by Federal agents, who claim magic isn’t real, and that he has been in a cult this whole time. A fantastic story about trauma, magic, and belief, this book had me questioning what was real and what was a lie. A warning, do not start this book unless you have a solid 24 hours to read, and then at least three days to recover. I started this book at 7am and was done by 7pm.

disasterhumans's review

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adventurous challenging dark emotional reflective tense fast-paced
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? It's complicated
  • Diverse cast of characters? It's complicated
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? It's complicated

5.0

full review tk

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caidyn's review

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dark emotional tense medium-paced
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

4.0

I received an ARC through a fairy and this is my honest review!

Wow, Szpara does it again. Another absolutely amazing read that takes so many themes and twists them on their head. I love how he uses sexual content to make a point, especially paired with it being very clearly a cult story. I enjoyed this one a whole lot, including how he used magic and fandoms as well as cult and chastity. It all blended so well together, just like his very first book did. I can't wait to have the finished product in my hands. The story was fantastically done and I know it's going to go so well with Docile.

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madisonb's review

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1.0

**First things first: there is a content warning at the beginning of the book, but it is laughably insufficient. This book is basically end-to-end graphic descriptions of ambiguously aged children and adults experiencing violent sexual and psychological abuse as well as physical and mental torture, and, crucially, it is all minimized as sexy and edgy. This review talks quite a bit about these topics. I will be containing any specific text-based examples in bold warning text, but I will not be tagging any non-triggering spoilers.**

A charitable review of this book would start by saying that it’s all a metaphor, that the processing and healing of abuse is messy and nonlinear, and that desire and trauma and pain are easily tangled. A charitable reviewer would say, hey, we all like what we like. Don’t kinkshame; don’t be an anti. Just because it’s not for you doesn’t mean it’s not for somebody else.

And to all of that, I say: this book shouldn’t be for anybody. This, friends, is not a good book.

Our protagonists are Lark and Calvin. Or, if you squint, Lark, Calvin, Deryn, and Kane. L, D, and K are raised on a commune by a woman named Nova. Though Nova is technically the antagonist, she appears extremely rarely and is really more of a concept than a character--she’s a cardboard cutout with “Cult Leader” Sharpied on. When they turn twenty-five, the members of the cult are allowed out of the compound to go on a quest to slay a monster. We’re told that it’s a relatively new cult, so Kane is the first to age out. He goes on his quest and immediately brings the FBI down on their asses. Lark eventually escapes from the FBI, where he serendipitously meets Calvin, a hot Lord of the Rings cosplayer, who immediately agrees to help him as he decides to pursue his own quest, dragging along his own cardboard cutout named Lillian, who has “Best Friend” Sharpied on her.

From the outset, the rules and structure of the cult boggle the mind, but like most erotica, the plot is a cobweb you brush aside to get to the sex. No detail of this story holds up against the barest scrutiny. Where are anybody’s parents? Who let this creepy woman buy this park and just...run a commune on it? Why are the kids in the cult the only ones with magic (yes, it’s a Magic Cult, if I didn’t say that already)? Are there other kids in the cult besides the five who get names? How did Lark get away so easily from the literal FBI? What’s up with that rock monster he fights at the end?
We could spend thousands of words listing what doesn’t make sense, but let’s move on to what does: Szpara has basically just taken all of the beats of his debut novel Docile and rewritten them into something somehow even more upsetting--and at least as racist, if not more. Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Lark is a hot young man with no control over his circumstances. Kane is a hot young man who knows that what he does to his hot young man companion is bad, but he just loves him and thinks he’s sexy and it’s just the system, man, what can you do? Eventually Lark is ripped from the arms of his beloved abuser by “normal, moral” society and forced to view his abuse as bad. A third hot young man, Calvin, helps the first hot young man heal from his sexual abuse by having sex with him, naturally. Then they confront their demons in a neat three-page tie-up (no pun intended) and in the end they’re all poly. Done!

Where Docile minimized the sexual violence against enslaved people under the quasi-woke pretense of “interrogating the debt crisis” (gag me with a spoon), First Become Ashes places Lark, a white person, as the “oppressed” existing in opposition to the “system” (basically one lone cardboard cutout with “FBI Agent” Sharpied on her). Several times throughout the book, characters assure Lark that they aren’t going to call the cops on him, post Instagram stories in support of his journey, block off highway ramps so the cops can’t get to him, and otherwise materially and emotionally aid in his journey to...fight a monster…? A goal that is not explained whatsoever until the last few pages, when an actual literal monster emerges from the ground and he kills it in like five sentences. Then suddenly the FBI are chill and it’s all good. There are characters of color (Kane is specifically described as East Asian), but the only identity that has any currency or material consequences is “cult member.” And any action to protect the cult member is activism. By this logic, Kane, the only primary character of color, is responsible for oppressing Lark, our white hero.

What I find so odious about this is that Szpara uses a lot of pro-queer, “antiracist,” anti-cop language and framing to obscure the absolutely heinous sexual scenes that are absolutely designed to be arousing and exciting to the reader. I’ve read plenty of ~erotic fantasy~ with niche sexual perspectives that simply didn’t do it for me, or squicked me out personally, and I didn’t write a 2000 word review on why they sucked. I just finished them and moved on. In this book, however, the rape-disguised-as-sex-scenes aren’t just a commentary on abuse, or designed to give the reader an unflinching look at the true physical nature of the abuse they suffered. They’re supposed to be sexy. Warning: specific examples take up the rest of this paragraph. Kane is drugged and forced to orgasm by Nova twelve times, including after he passes out, and she tells him she’s putting his semen in everyone’s food to strengthen their magic. After this scene this is never mentioned again, except to say that it happened to both Kane and Lark several more times. Kane and Lark have to wear chastity cages, which Szpara lovingly describes at every available opportunity. And let’s not forget when Lark is brutally raped by an older man, at the behest of Nova, and Kane jealously watches from the woods with an erection.The man is then kicked out of the community not for being a rapist but because he encouraged Lark to orgasm. Specific descriptions end here.

There’s maybe one sex scene in this book that isn’t a graphic description of rape. But by couching all of it in leftist buzzwords and Consent 101 terminology, we’re supposed to believe that it’s OK, that it’s commentary.

As in Docile, Szpara gives himself plausible deniability by saying in the last few chapters that what happened to the cult members was Definitely Very Bad, No Thank You. But don’t piss on my head and tell me it’s raining. Your thinly veiled Shadowhunters slave fic isn’t fooling anyone.

charkinzie's review

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5.0

This is one of those books that is tricky to review without giving away details that would take away from the experience of reading it. This book feels almost like a new genre to me... like a merging of fantasy and mainstream fiction with a dash of pop culture thrown in.

Lark and Kane are on the threshold of a life change when this story begins. They are both members of the "Anointed". They have spent their entire lives being trained, learning to harness and control their magical skills through ritual and discipline. Druid Hill is a fortress-like home for the anointed and those who train and care for them. They are cut off from the outside world of humans.. and monsters. The monsters who inhabit the world outside the safety of their walls are the creatures that the anointed must one day fight and conquer in order to protect everyone.

It is Kane who leaves the safety of those walls first... and Lark is left alone. He's lost without his partner but doubles down on his commitment to his training and his beliefs. He can count the time in days until he can be out fighting side by side with Kane once more.

This is when things explode around Lark. The FBI bust into Druid Hill and everyone is dragged kicking and screaming from the only home they have known. The most horrifying thing for Lark is that Kane seems to be working with the FBI.

Here, I would warn anyone who chooses to read this book, to consider reading content warnings. The characters in this story have been subjected to a variety of non-consensual sex and BDSM practices. All of the violence and sexual abuse/violence in the past that is portrayed in the novel is in the context of giving the reader a great understanding of what the main characters have lived through.

The truly interesting thing about this story is that it seems to be a straight forward case of someone being taught that they are something they are not. When Lark is faced with Kane telling him that everything they have been taught is false... he simply won't accept it. Has he been brainwashed to the point at which he can no longer be convinced? Is Kane wrong? Of course, one might be inclined to think of Lark as an unreliable narrator. This book is not quite as straight-forward as you might think and I found that refreshing.

Lark bolts and finds himself allied with a young man named Calvin. Calvin is a cosplayer, a self-proclaimed and proud "nerd". And Calvin desperately wants magic to be real. Lark represents magic and everything that Calvin wants to believe exists in his world. Together the two men combine magical skill and technology to help Lark fulfill his mission. He needs to find and kill the monster that is threatening all of humankind.

Please don't dismiss this novel as a quirky sort of fantasy... that's not at all what it is. This is a very serious look at the way our beliefs can be controlled by those who have power over us. It also explores the other side of the coin... our hopes, our deeply hidden desires can influence what we believe and how we choose to act. This is a book that will definitely warrant a second reading once I have let some of it simmer a bit in my mind.

If you read the warnings and are okay with the content, I would encourage you to read this. This is a wonderful story. It combines uncomfortable subject matter with hope and it was oddly entertaining at times even amidst the darkness of the characters' pasts. I love unique books, and "First, Become Ashes" is definitely unique!