K. M. Szpara follows his explosive debut novel Docile with First, Become Ashes, a fantastic standalone adventure that explores self-discovery after trauma and outgrowing abusive origins over the course of an American road trip.
The Fellowship raised Lark to kill monsters.
His partner betrayed them to the Feds.
But Lark knows his magic is real, and he’ll do anything to complete his quest.
For thirty years, the Fellowship of the Anointed isolated its members, conditioning them to believe that pain is power. That magic is suffering. That the world beyond the fence has fallen prey to monsters. But when their leader is arrested, all her teachings come into question.
Those touched by the Fellowship face a choice: how will they adjust to the world they were taught to fear, and how will they relate to the cult’s last crusader, Lark? For Kane, survival means rejecting the magic he and his lover suffered for. For Deryn, the cult’s collapse is an opportunity to prove they are worth as much as their Anointed brother. For Calvin, lark is the alluring embodiment of the magic he’s been seeking his entire life.
But for Lark, the Fellowship isn’t over. Before he can begin to discover himself and heal a lifetime of traumas, he has a monster to slay.
First, Become Ashes contains explicit sadomasochism and sexual content, as well as abuse and consent violations, including rape.
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.