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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. K. M. Szpara follows Docile, one of the most anticipated science fiction novels of 2020, with First, Become Ashes, a fantastic standalone adventure that blends pain and pleasure and will make readers question what i 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. K. M. Szpara follows Docile, one of the most anticipated science fiction novels of 2020, with First, Become Ashes, a fantastic standalone adventure that blends pain and pleasure and will make readers question what is real, and what is magical. Lark spent the first twenty-four years, nine months, and three days of his life training for a righteous quest: to rid the world of monsters. Alongside his partner Kane, he wore the cage and endured the scourge in order to develop his innate magic. He never thought that when Kane left, he'd next see him in the company of FBI agents and a SWAT team. He never dreamed that the leader of the Fellowship of the Anointed would be brought up on charges of abuse and assault. He never expected the government would tell him that the monsters aren't real--that there is no magic, and all the pain was for nothing. Lark isn't ready to give up. He is determined to fulfill his quest, to defeat the monsters he was promised. Along the way he will grapple with the past, confront love, and discover his long-buried truth.


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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. K. M. Szpara follows Docile, one of the most anticipated science fiction novels of 2020, with First, Become Ashes, a fantastic standalone adventure that blends pain and pleasure and will make readers question what i 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. K. M. Szpara follows Docile, one of the most anticipated science fiction novels of 2020, with First, Become Ashes, a fantastic standalone adventure that blends pain and pleasure and will make readers question what is real, and what is magical. Lark spent the first twenty-four years, nine months, and three days of his life training for a righteous quest: to rid the world of monsters. Alongside his partner Kane, he wore the cage and endured the scourge in order to develop his innate magic. He never thought that when Kane left, he'd next see him in the company of FBI agents and a SWAT team. He never dreamed that the leader of the Fellowship of the Anointed would be brought up on charges of abuse and assault. He never expected the government would tell him that the monsters aren't real--that there is no magic, and all the pain was for nothing. Lark isn't ready to give up. He is determined to fulfill his quest, to defeat the monsters he was promised. Along the way he will grapple with the past, confront love, and discover his long-buried truth.

30 review for First, Become Ashes

  1. 5 out of 5

    Madison

    **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 ta **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.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Tucker (TuckerTheReader)

    OH MY GOD YAS | Goodreads | Blog | Pinterest | LinkedIn | YouTube | Instagram OH MY GOD YAS | Goodreads | Blog | Pinterest | LinkedIn | YouTube | Instagram

  3. 5 out of 5

    Eli

    I knew going in that this book wasn’t for me. So, I’m not gonna review it in the traditional sense, or leave stars. As with “Docile”, I know “First, Become Ashes” is the story for someone. However, I will give content warnings because they were pretty vague in the beginning. Content Warning for the following: -graphic depictions of rape involving a main character and an authority figure (multiple occurrences) -graphic depictions non-consensual BDSM involving two main characters (multiple occurren I knew going in that this book wasn’t for me. So, I’m not gonna review it in the traditional sense, or leave stars. As with “Docile”, I know “First, Become Ashes” is the story for someone. However, I will give content warnings because they were pretty vague in the beginning. Content Warning for the following: -graphic depictions of rape involving a main character and an authority figure (multiple occurrences) -graphic depictions non-consensual BDSM involving two main characters (multiple occurrences) -graphic depiction of self-harm involving a main character -graphic depiction of sadomasochistic violence and injuries -general unsafe BDSM practices -manipulation in a cult environment -doubt of reality by main characters (what’s real and what’s not, unreliable narrator, descriptions that are purposefully misleading/vague, etc.) I think that’s it??? I’ll continue to update if I remember more. If you would like specifics of any of these content warnings or you want to know if an unlisted trigger of yours is in the book, please DM me on twitter @thylaed. Edit 8/20/2020: Because Tor, K.M. Szpara, and team thought that this image was appropriate marketing, then deleted after people pointed out how bad it was. Screenshots are forever, baby!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Jordan (Jordy’s Book Club)

    QUICK TAKE: I liked, but didn't love Szpara's previous book, DOCILE. That being said, the synopsis for the new one had me intrigued (5 minutes in the future where a special group of people have been trained to fight monsters that have overtaken humanity). Unfortunately, I don't think this author is for me. It's hard to go into details without spoiling the story, but once the "monsters" infiltrate the Fellowship's training camp, the book takes a hard 180 and becomes something completely different QUICK TAKE: I liked, but didn't love Szpara's previous book, DOCILE. That being said, the synopsis for the new one had me intrigued (5 minutes in the future where a special group of people have been trained to fight monsters that have overtaken humanity). Unfortunately, I don't think this author is for me. It's hard to go into details without spoiling the story, but once the "monsters" infiltrate the Fellowship's training camp, the book takes a hard 180 and becomes something completely different...I was intrigued by the exploration of disinformation and gaslighting here (again, to give much more away would really spoil this story), but ultimately was a little bored and unsatisfied with FIRST, BECOME ASHES. d

  5. 5 out of 5

    Sana

    Szpara mentioned this on Crowdcast today and it sounds so good like the main character was raised by a cult, there's a queer cosplaying nerd, possible superhuman abilities, a road trip and slaying of monsters, ahhhh Source Szpara mentioned this on Crowdcast today and it sounds so good like the main character was raised by a cult, there's a queer cosplaying nerd, possible superhuman abilities, a road trip and slaying of monsters, ahhhh Source

  6. 5 out of 5

    Dennis

    This book is hard to talk about without giving away any spoilers, so I will be brief. KM Szpara's 2020 dystopian novel Docile was one of my top 10 reads for 2020, so when I heard that Szpara has a new science fiction novel out in April 2021, I knew I needed to read it ASAP. While I appreciate the author's use of overcoming trauma, I did go in with too high expectations for First, Become Ashes . I think my biggest issue with this story is the alternating point of views between past and present This book is hard to talk about without giving away any spoilers, so I will be brief. KM Szpara's 2020 dystopian novel Docile was one of my top 10 reads for 2020, so when I heard that Szpara has a new science fiction novel out in April 2021, I knew I needed to read it ASAP. While I appreciate the author's use of overcoming trauma, I did go in with too high expectations for First, Become Ashes . I think my biggest issue with this story is the alternating point of views between past and present, where the present provides spoilers too detailed to really have engaged me in the other timeline in the narrative. That being said, I will address items I really enjoyed about this book: -Use of pronouns. This book is one of the first, if not the first, to make note of pronouns for its characters. I think more books should consider doing this in some fashion. - Use of overcoming trauma. Like Docile, First, Become Ashes has severe trauma placed on its characters. For real, this is my disclaimer for you readers. However, I always am intrigued on how trauma can affect a character and I appreciate seeing how flawed characters navigate through it. It's a dilemma we face in real life society, so I appreciate when authors "go there" in their storytelling. - Diversity. This book had people of different races, genders, and sexualities. I appreciated having a spectrum of characters and not the stereotypical mainstream white cisgendered cast of characters we've been getting for years. Overall, First, Become Ashes was not what I expected. In fact, I think readers who didn't enjoy Docile may like this one more than I did. I will definitely see what's next coming next from KM Szpara.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Charlotte

    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 r 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!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Sarah Meerkat

    I have sat at 45% on this book for months and thought maybe I would finish it just to see if the not magic sex magic monsters was actually real but I dont care. The tonal shifts in this book from abusive sex cult to literal Thranduil cosplay comic con plus road trip are absurdly jarring and deeply unpleasant. There is a way to actually make magic powered by sadomasochism interesting and this isnt it. This book doesnt know if it wants to be fabulism or what and honestly I dont care anymore. Below i I have sat at 45% on this book for months and thought maybe I would finish it just to see if the not magic sex magic monsters was actually real but I dont care. The tonal shifts in this book from abusive sex cult to literal Thranduil cosplay comic con plus road trip are absurdly jarring and deeply unpleasant. There is a way to actually make magic powered by sadomasochism interesting and this isnt it. This book doesnt know if it wants to be fabulism or what and honestly I dont care anymore. Below is what I call the not 3 am review I added to Edelweis "This book does not know what tone it wants to set. It tries so hard to be super edgy and super woke and about how trauma warps the mind but really its just bad torture porn fanfic masquerading as "high brow quasi literary pseudo fantasy." Jumping from a cult that makes no sense to literal comic con with a vlogger running around as Thranduil from the Hobbit is the most jarring tonal shift I have ever encountered. "

  9. 4 out of 5

    Lois Young

    I wasn't sure what to expect from this book when I started reading it, but it was SOOO good! I want to call this novel an "urban fantasy," but that's not how it starts, but it's how it ends. Cosplayers, gamers and readers will appreciate this book about this coming-of-age story about cults, family and believing. Now, I should consider reading the author's first novel, "Docile." Complete RTC. I wasn't sure what to expect from this book when I started reading it, but it was SOOO good! I want to call this novel an "urban fantasy," but that's not how it starts, but it's how it ends. Cosplayers, gamers and readers will appreciate this book about this coming-of-age story about cults, family and believing. Now, I should consider reading the author's first novel, "Docile." Complete RTC.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Elliot

    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 f 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.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Katrina

    K.M. Szpara really knows how to break my heart and put it back together again. First with Docile and now this? Stop playing with my EMOTIONS! Full review to come closer to release date.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Kate (Feathered Turtle Press)

    is this one going to an actual book or more poorly-concealed-fanfic like Docile?

  13. 5 out of 5

    Ashley

    I am going to continue reading this author's books because I always find them compelling and interesting, but I think I might have to get the next one from the library instead of buying a pricey hardcover on the back of a tasty premise. This one is making me feel saucy. I was really looking forward to this book! The premise sounded amazing, and I love reading about cults, fictional or not. But the author took it in a direction that I thought was the least interesting option. The set-up here is th I am going to continue reading this author's books because I always find them compelling and interesting, but I think I might have to get the next one from the library instead of buying a pricey hardcover on the back of a tasty premise. This one is making me feel saucy. I was really looking forward to this book! The premise sounded amazing, and I love reading about cults, fictional or not. But the author took it in a direction that I thought was the least interesting option. The set-up here is that Lark (one of the POV characters) has just been "liberated" from a cult called the Fellowship of the Anointed, that he was born into. The cult teaches its members that they can do magic, and that the outside world is corrupted by monsters, which they are trained intensively to hunt. But Lark's partner Kane has been talking to the FBI, and there's a raid, and Lark's whole world is thrown into chaos. He refuses to believe the truth and takes off. He wants to to slay the monsters and get his life back. We also get POV from Lark's sibling Deryn, flashback POV from Kane, and POV from an outsider named Calvin, who is a professional cosplayer who gets wrapped up in Lark's quest because he wants magic to be real. All of this makes for a fascinating cocktail of story possibilities. As with his first book, I very much appreciate the way that Szpara is able to paint a morally grey landscape and allow his characters to move around in it. I also thought the writing itself was improved, tighter in focus, and with sharper dialogue. I liked all the characters. In fact I quite liked the first half of the book before it became apparent all the things I was wanting from the story weren't going to be there at the end. I loved the juxtaposition of the cult member who was a true believer set loose on the world, colliding with a normal who badly wanted to escape the real world. There was a dizzying amount of opportunity baked right into that. I wasn't satisfied by the result. My first complaint is a personal one that I always have that nearly no one else will have, and that's that I wanted more details. Like, an excessive amount of details that I recognize probably isn't necessary or actually important to the arc of the story. I want to know everything about this cult and what the outside world thinks of it! I want to see theories and people arguing about it. I want to see what other people think of the members. I wanted to see the investigation into them, what the difficulties were, how they strategized, how they plan to deprogram the members and prosecute the leaders. I want to know why the leader started it (this I think is an actual hole in the narrative). I wanted more of what cult life was like. Etc. The rest is going to have to be in spoiler tags. (view spoiler)[My second issue is that about a third of the way through you start getting hints that this is going to be one of those annoying books where it can go either way on whether or not the magic (or whatever) is actually real. I just think that's uninteresting at this point, first of all. It's been done. Second, toeing that line, or even going as far as to say magic is real (which I think the book does do!) completely undercuts what I thought was so great about this premise. The culture shock, the intense juxtaposition, is nearly gone if magic is real. I just found it boring, especially in comparison to what could have been there instead. Also, I found the actual end of the quest to be inane. The "monster" makes zero sense if it is actually a monster. If it is a hallucination on Lark's part, he needs professional help from a licensed therapist. I also found it highly unlikely that first of all, a) that many people would be pulling for Lark instead of turning him in (the author could have made this work with more context for the cult in the outside world, I think), and b) that the cops wouldn't have just pushed past them. I mean, they blocked every entrance and exit to the freeway for how long? It was just too much for me. And finally, Lark's emotional arc to "wake up" or whatever in my opinion ends in a cop out. We "see" his final acceptance that his life has been built on lies through the eyes of another character, but we only know that in hindsight when Lark tells us in the next chapter that's what was going through his head. We needed to see that moment! It was the most important moment in the book! (hide spoiler)] Worth noting that there are explicit depictions of sex, abuse, rape, and abusive sadomasochism in this book. The author comes from a fanfic writing background where there is no curtain to pull back behind, and you see everything good and bad, so that's what you see here, too. It can be jarring if you're not used to it, and it's certainly not the norm for traditional publishing. I thought some of those scenes weren't necessary and the book would have been better without them, but I thought some were. YMMV. All in all, an interesting experiment that I read super quick and that entertained me, but that I ultimately wish was a different book.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Lu

    Thank you so much, NetGalley, Macmillan-Tor/Forge and Tordotcom, for the chance to read and review one of my most anticipated reads in 2021! TW: sadomachism, violence, sexual abuse, rape, consent violations For thirty years, the Fellowship of the Anointed isolated its members, convincing them that pain is power, that the outside world is full of monsters they had to kill. Lark was raised to kill them. All his life he believed in his leader's, Nova, words and in her teachings. Pain is power. Discip Thank you so much, NetGalley, Macmillan-Tor/Forge and Tordotcom, for the chance to read and review one of my most anticipated reads in 2021! TW: sadomachism, violence, sexual abuse, rape, consent violations For thirty years, the Fellowship of the Anointed isolated its members, convincing them that pain is power, that the outside world is full of monsters they had to kill. Lark was raised to kill them. All his life he believed in his leader's, Nova, words and in her teachings. Pain is power. Discipline, control, he had to avoid temptations and nurture his power. But when his lover, Kane, betrays the Fellowship to the FBI and tries to convince him that everything they were taught isn't real, Lark can't accept it. He knows magic is real and he has a monster to slay and his own quest. Those who are touched by the Fellowship have to face a choice: adjusting to the world they were taught to fear or following Lark? Kane rejects the magic and the pain he and his lover suffered for it, Deryn sees this opportunity as a chance to prove their worth to the world even though they are not Anointed. Calvin sees in Lark a way to find the magic he's been seeking his entire life. First, become ashes is a fantastic and brilliant novel about self-discovering, traumas, brainwashing and the strength of facing abuse, loving oneself and healing. Told by four different POVs, Kane's, Lark's, Calvin's and Deryn's and swinging from past, with Kane, to present, with Lark, Calvin and Deryn, the story is skillfully written, intense and, sometimes, painful to read, but really intriguing. The plot swings from Kane, and how he realized the truths behind Nova's teaching and her lies, to Lark, who is convinced magic is real and he's struggling with his beliefs, to Calvin, who wants to find magic in his world and he's ready to support and follow Lark, to Deryn, Lark's sibling and how Nova's separation between Fellows and Anointed hurt them. Each character is brilliantly written and relatable. The characterization and the worldbuilding, how the Fellowship was structured, its rituals and teaching...everything is intriguing and well written. We follow Kane with his doubts and love for Lark, Lark with his beliefs and how he starts to question everything, Deryn with their desire to be seen and listened to, Calvin with his passions and love. The questioning, the self-discovery, the seeing traumas exactly as it was, everything happens during a road trip and I loved this ploy. While on his quest, Lark starts questioning his beliefs, Nova's teaching, trying to understand what happened to and with Kane, to realize the trauma and abuse. I love how the plot was woven between the four POVs, with plot twists, painful and tender moments, memories and understandings. I really enjoyed reading this book and exploring each POVS and how, through Kane's POV, the reader is able to understand his reasons and how he realized everything and decided to do something to save and protect the people he loves; how, though Lark's, we can see how he struggles to adapt and to get to know a world he's been taught to fear and how, slowly, he starts to understand what's real and what's not and what he's been through; how, through Calvin, we follow Lark and his magic, hoping for something more in the world; how, through Deryn, we see their anger and jealousy and also their growth and the willingness to help Lark and to build a bond with him, away from Nova's lies and hurtful teachings. The relationships between characters were skillfully written and I really loved the bond between Kane and Lark, Lark and Calvin, the friendship between Calvin and Lilian, the relationship between Miller and Kane and Deryn...they were relatable, intense and sweet. I was really impressed by this book and how the author focused on consent, control and self-discovery and self-love. How the characters went through so much in order to understand one another better and to learn how to love each other and themselves. First, become ashes is a brilliant book about facing traumas and healing about self-discovering and self-love, about relationships and magic. I loved everything.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Holly (The GrimDragon)

    “As we kiss, all I can focus on is the soft stroke of his thumb over my cheek. When he pulls back, I feel the memory of his touch against my face, though my lips are cold and alone.” First, Become Ashes is a book that begins on a dark note, warning the reader what they are in for with a list of numerous triggers. Explicit sadomasochism & sexual content, as well as abuse & consent violations, including rape. To that already brutal list, I would also add: self-injury, indoctrination, torture & HP r “As we kiss, all I can focus on is the soft stroke of his thumb over my cheek. When he pulls back, I feel the memory of his touch against my face, though my lips are cold and alone.” First, Become Ashes is a book that begins on a dark note, warning the reader what they are in for with a list of numerous triggers. Explicit sadomasochism & sexual content, as well as abuse & consent violations, including rape. To that already brutal list, I would also add: self-injury, indoctrination, torture & HP references. Hooo, goddamn. Needless to say, please heed the content warnings before jumping into this! “Right now, I live in a place of hope. Where magic could be real.” The story is difficult to succinctly articulate into a review. There are many cogs in the wheel of this machine, some more successful than others. The Fellowship of the Anointed is a community located on land in the heart of Baltimore that was once a park. Known to the outside world as the Druid Hill cult, this group is lead by a woman named Nova. She believes that the world beyond the warded gates is filled with literal monsters. For the last 30 years, she has trained the Fellowship to wield magic in order to fight these monsters. Once an Anointed (those gifted with magic & other abilities) turns 25, they are released into the outside world on a quest to defeat a monster, known as a FOE (Forces of Evil). But is any of it real? First, Become Ashes follows the perspectives of three survivors & one outsider, told through alternating chapters & different timelines, past & present. Lark, our primary POV, is an Anointed who is only a few months away from turning 25. He was raised to kill these monsters & is deeply involved in the practice of the Fellowship; Kane, his partner, has just left on his own crusade – turning Nova & the other abusers into the FBI & exposing their lies. The other two POV’s are from Deryn, a non-binary character who is believed to be Lark’s sibling & Calvin, a professional cosplayer who is willing to help Lark on his quest. Nova took away choice & opportunity. She wanted complete & utter control of the commune & their lives. She conditioned the Fellowship to believe that pain is power. The brainwashing & abuse was so intense, these people truly struggled with separating fantasy from reality, belief from doubt. Szpara does a good job exploring the mental & physical traumas that are caused from decades-long brainwashing, and the deprogramming that the characters must go through after a lifetime of anguish & lies. It’s not a secret that I find cults fascinating & unsettling & interesting as fuck. Despite the heavy themes that are embedded throughout the story, First, Become Ashes was compelling & hard to put down! However, there were more than a few plot holes & the ambiguity of the worldbuilding quickly became frustrating. Where this mostly lost me was the backstory. Szpara doesn’t give the reader much information about the motivation behind the formation of the Magical Sex (RAPE) Cult. If this was another 100-200 pages, it would have been a more well-rounded story. As it is, it feels incomplete. CW: Self-injury, indoctrination, torture, HP references, explicit sadomasochism & sexual content, as well as abuse & consent violations, including rape. (Thanks to Tor.com Publishing for sending me a copy!) **The quotes above were taken from an ARC & are subject to change upon publication**

  16. 5 out of 5

    Lisa | Lady_Logomancer

    ✨Firstly, there is a content warning at the beginning of the book that should be taken seriously. There are some shocking and disturbing abuse scenes. Secondly, I like to be informed, so I will share that I did a little research on this book before I read it. There is some controversy surrounding it, feel free to research and decide for yourself before proceeding. ✨ . . ✨Thank you to @NetGalley and @Tordotcom for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. With the warnings established I ✨Firstly, there is a content warning at the beginning of the book that should be taken seriously. There are some shocking and disturbing abuse scenes. Secondly, I like to be informed, so I will share that I did a little research on this book before I read it. There is some controversy surrounding it, feel free to research and decide for yourself before proceeding. ✨ . . ✨Thank you to @NetGalley and @Tordotcom for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. With the warnings established I will review. I read this book in two days. It was fast paced and completely engrossing. At first, it was like The OA meets Divergent. Then you are shell shocked into a completely different reality, when everything the main character has ever known their whole life is revealed to be a lie. You feel the hurt and betrayal right along with the MC. The rest of the story was truly unique.✨ . . ✨I enjoy speculative fiction, found family, magical realism, LGBTQIA and non-binary characters and this book has all of that. This story broke its own ground and created its own rules. The main character of Lark was both the hero on a hero’s journey and the foil of his own belief system. Calvin was such a cute, tender nerdy side character. Kane was so good, so loving and steadfast. I enjoyed them all. ✨ . . ✨The magical aspects of this book are always being called into question. Is it real? Or is the human spirit, or true belief the key to unlocking super human powers? I like that it is ambiguous and lets the reader make some of those decisions for themselves.✨ . . ✨ All that being said, there were a few things that didn’t work for me. I would really have enjoyed more. More of the side characters, more of the villain Nova, more of her protests of innocence, more of how she got away with all that she did and how she was eventually punished. I would have liked more world building and yes, gasp, a little less sex. There were places where it was distracting rather than building intimacy. ✨ . . ✨Overall, if you can overcome some graphic content and not so neat world building, this was a fast paced and thoroughly entertaining read.✨

  17. 5 out of 5

    iam

    A book that suffers from not quite knowing what it wants to be, to the point of feeling almost like two separate plots that are mashed together, negating the successful completion of either storyline. Also, terrible marketing. Read the full review and more on the blog! Content warnings include: physical/sexual/emotional/child abuse, gaslighting and manipulation, unsafe sadomasochism, rape, non-consensual BDSM, cult mentality and brainwashing, self harm, unconsensual chastity devices, denial of bod A book that suffers from not quite knowing what it wants to be, to the point of feeling almost like two separate plots that are mashed together, negating the successful completion of either storyline. Also, terrible marketing. Read the full review and more on the blog! Content warnings include: physical/sexual/emotional/child abuse, gaslighting and manipulation, unsafe sadomasochism, rape, non-consensual BDSM, cult mentality and brainwashing, self harm, unconsensual chastity devices, denial of bodily autonomy, sex on-page, FBI raid, violence, character gets shot. When I read the author’s debut book, Docile , I had some mixed feelings but overall a good time. It made me excited to see what else he would write, and First, Become Ashes sounded intriguing enough on its own to catch my interest already. Many of the issues I had with Docile also apply to First, Become Ashes, with the caveat that Docile was still enjoyable and at least somewhat successful. I was confused about what Docile was trying to be, but it ultimately told a rounded story with a satisfying conclusion that subverted the initial expectations it set up. First, Become Ashes meanwhile felt like two different concepts mashed together, neither succeeding because both end up not quite committing. First, Become Ashes is a victim of its marketing in more than one way. Firstly it’s presented as the story of Lark, who grew up in a cult believing monsters and magic are real, just to be confronted with our pragmatic and contemporary world that doesn’t subscribe to the concept of magic. Secondly, the graphics created by the publisher (now deleted, but I saw it and it thus influenced my approach to the book) make it sound like a fun, cutesy romp with some BDSM erotica. It’s neither of those two things. For most of the book, I had no idea where it was heading. Every time I thought I got a clue it was thrown off course again. This lasted until the very end. There were buildups that seemingly amounted to nothing or were keeled over and forgotten as a new turn developed. This was reflected not just in the plot, but also the characters. There’s four POV characters, which I liked due to their different perspectives, but to be honest it could have easily been broken down to two or three. Generally, several of the side characters ended up irrelevant to the plot – the little that they do contribute could have easily been implemented another way. That said, I liked several of those characters. In regards to representation, there was on-page queer, mlm, nonbinary, polyamorous and East Asian(-American) representation through the four protagonists. Ultimately the main issue was that the book didn’t know what it wanted to be, or it tried to be two contrasting things at the same time. There was this constant back and forth between magic-is-real and magic’s-not-real, to the point it got frustrating and distracted from the plot. In that context, several plot elements were confusing and seemed really misplaced to me. One of those misplaced things was the romantic subplot. It wasn’t entirely bad, but personally I didn’t really like its development and how it tied in with the rest of what was happening. Ultimately I just don’t think this book was successful in any way. It was well written and not a chore to read, and definitely intriguing with its view on cult mentality if you can stomach the content warnings. However, for me it didn’t deliver with its plot or conversations about trauma and years of abuse and manipulation. I received an ARC and reviewed honestly and voluntarly.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Page

    Thank you to NetGalley and Tor for my review copy 📆 PUB DATE: April 6, 2021 💬 “First, Become Ashes contains explicit sadomasochism and sexual content, as well as abuse and consent violations, including rape.” It is impossible to talk about this book without talking about these triggers and also spoilers. Please proceed with caution. 📚The remains of an abandoned zoo on Druid Hill in Baltimore, MD is now home to a group that calls themselves The Fellowship. They are an insular community that practice Thank you to NetGalley and Tor for my review copy 📆 PUB DATE: April 6, 2021 💬 “First, Become Ashes contains explicit sadomasochism and sexual content, as well as abuse and consent violations, including rape.” It is impossible to talk about this book without talking about these triggers and also spoilers. Please proceed with caution. 📚The remains of an abandoned zoo on Druid Hill in Baltimore, MD is now home to a group that calls themselves The Fellowship. They are an insular community that practices magic and believes the outside world has been corrupted by literal monsters. Things get turned upside down for Lark when he is removed from that environment and honestly just a lot of stuff goes to shit. 👍 I hate calling a book “readable” because obviously. But I read this on my kindle and somehow not having a book in my hands makes everything I read feel longer than it actually is. But this was 300+ pages and felt so short. And it was seriously hard to put down. Unfortunately, that’s basically where my praise for this book ends. 👎So for the sake of time, I’m only getting into the most pressing issues in this. First of all, this is erotica first, story second. Style/craft wise, it is on the level with the erotic fanfic you read as a teen with your door locked. And that’s fine. The problem is that this book is about characters who are dealing with explicit sexual abuse and manipulation. But the scenes in which that abuse takes place, where characters are explicitly being raped are written like masturbation material. I’m not here to tell anyone what they can and can’t jerk off to. Live your life. And maybe Szpara is trying to make some grander point about kink and consent but I honestly don’t think he’s a good enough writer to be successful. Also all the characters are idiots and I HATE the way non-binary pronouns are handled. It’s annoying enough to see “they/them” otherized by “evolved progressive people smugly introducing themselves by introducing their pronouns to the primitive outsiders.” It’s especially annoying with the evolved progressive people are in a literal ✨Magic Rape Cult✨. THE VERDICT:⭐️ I started at 3⭐️s and every layer I peeled back I took one away until I realized I actually hated this book. 📚Alt Recs: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind-ing this out of my brain.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Ash | Wild Heart Reads

    Ahhh that ending 🥰🥰 rtc

  20. 5 out of 5

    Jordan

    Find this review at Forever Lost in Literature! Before diving into this review, I'd just like to include a big content warning (which is also found in the beginning of the book) for sexual violence (rape, abuse), violations of consent, and explicit sadomasochism depictions. There is very explicit abuse of scenes that are difficult to take in, so please do be aware and cautious if any of the mentioned topics are something that cause any difficulties for you. I do not make any explicit description Find this review at Forever Lost in Literature! Before diving into this review, I'd just like to include a big content warning (which is also found in the beginning of the book) for sexual violence (rape, abuse), violations of consent, and explicit sadomasochism depictions. There is very explicit abuse of scenes that are difficult to take in, so please do be aware and cautious if any of the mentioned topics are something that cause any difficulties for you. I do not make any explicit description of any of this content in my review. Szpara's debut last year Docile was a bit hit or miss for a lot of people, and I was one of those that absolutely loved it--which of course made me incredible excited for his sophomore novel, First, Become Ashes. I didn't quite end up loving First, Become Ashes as much as Docile (but frankly, that'd be hard to do for anything!), but I did still thoroughly enjoy this one as well. First, Become Ashes essentially begins--and ends--as a story about a cult and those affected by it. The Fellowship is a cult led tough leader Nova, where members (those know as the 'Anointed') are trained to have upmost loyalty and to wield magic in order to fight monsters that populate the "outside" world that makes up the entirety of the world outside the gates of the Fellowship. This is a story that largely explores the aftereffects of having lived in a cult and what different forms of 'deprogramming' (for lack of a better word) can manifest. Szpara excellently explores the mental and physical affects of repeated abuse and brainwashing that result from the many characters' experiences as part of the cult, and I particularly appreciated that we got to follow a couple different members who were all at different stages of belief and acceptance (or lack of acceptance). Once again, one of Szpara's biggest strengths is in his characters. The story and plot are not without their own strengths, but it's really his well-developed and multi-dimensional characters that tell the whole story. We follow four perspectives in this book: Lark (Meadowlark), Kane, Calvin, and Deryn. Lark and Kane are Anointed members of the Fellowship (meaning they get the training to fight monsters), Deryn is a Fellow, and Calvin is an "outsider"--a regular everyday person just like you and me. Just shy of turning 25 when he would get to begin his own quest fighting monsters, Lark is liberated from the Fellowship by his partner Kane, who has become an FBI informant in order to help get the abusive Fellowship shutdown. Lark is fully enmeshed in the fellowship society and refuses to believe that everything he's been taught is a lie. Lark is one of the most compelling characters to follow throughout this story as we watch him slowly come to grips with understanding what has happened to him and what this all means for the future. He is deeply troubled and struggles immensely with knowing what or who to trust and how to determine what is real and what is not. I think Szpara captured this confusion well, while also capturing Lark's determination to continue on his quest no matter what--or who--stands in his way. Lark has also suffered from many severe forms of physical and mental abuse, and Szpara does not shy away from exploring these topics in depth. Then there's Calvin, one of the other main POVs we follow, who gets caught up the world of Lark and the Fellowship and chooses to assist Lark on his quest. Calvin is someone who I would describe as a dreamer, some who is always looking for more and is willing to push aside doubts in order ot hope and dream that the magic Lark talks about is real. I think there's probably a part in all of us that love and cherish fantasy and speculative fiction that can relate to this desire of Calvin's--I know I can. Calvin was such a well-developed character with his own journey towards better understanding both himself and others, and I also really appreciate how respectful he was towards Lark and everything Lark did that was entirely unfamiliar to him. Lastly are Kane and Deryn, the informant and the one quick to jump off the Fellowship train after harboring many bitter feelings toward the Anointed for many years--and also Lark's half-sibling. Kane is the only POV we get that really focuses on a time previous to the present in which we get to see firsthand what went on in the Fellowship and all of the myriad of awful ways in which they were abusive towards their members. Much like with Lark, we get to experience firsthand some of the traumatic abuse that Kane is subjected to, and it really is sobering and difficult to read while highlighting the importance of being aware and careful of these topics. Deryn is not an Anointed and is not quite as upset about leaving the Fellowship as Lark, but they carry some extremely conflicted feelings about things once on the outside as well. In regards to the plot itself, I found myself mixed on how I felt about it. In some ways, I found it utterly compelling and couldn't pull myself away, but at other times I felt as though there a few too many things that felt like plot holes or that just didn't quite make sense to me. I think the reason that these issues didn't bother me too much, though, is because this book felt like it was so much more focused on the characters and their individuals journeys rather than the intricacies of the plot itself. It wasn't really ever supposed to be about the magic itself or the details of the Fellowship and the events that occurred after it was exposed, so the world-building felt strong for what it was intended to be. Overall, I've given First, Become Ashes four stars! First, Become Ashes wasn't quite what I expected, but it was still an incredibly compelling and well-written story that explored a lot of great themes and ideas.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Eli Claire

    First things first: I LOVED Szpara’s debut novel, ‘Docile.’ One of my favorite books of the year, so when I saw this was coming out and was available on NetGalley - I requested & preordered, eager to read what they had up their sleeve next. And this one was ... fine? Like, I enjoyed most of it. The storyline was compelling (Escaping a cult! Monsters! Magic! Queers! Cosplay!) and some of the characters were likable - but I didn’t get the same thrill as I did when I was reading ‘Docile.’ I didn’t First things first: I LOVED Szpara’s debut novel, ‘Docile.’ One of my favorite books of the year, so when I saw this was coming out and was available on NetGalley - I requested & preordered, eager to read what they had up their sleeve next. And this one was ... fine? Like, I enjoyed most of it. The storyline was compelling (Escaping a cult! Monsters! Magic! Queers! Cosplay!) and some of the characters were likable - but I didn’t get the same thrill as I did when I was reading ‘Docile.’ I didn’t tear through the book, or get the same sense of enjoyment from the storyline. Maybe it was the multiple perspectives (especially Miller’s), or maybe it was the monster storyline that didn’t feel fully fleshed-out (I didn’t really “get it”) - this one just wasn’t for me. Regardless, I really do like how Szpara writes, and the way he tackles things like pain and consent, body autonomy, found family, and queerness. Perhaps I’m comparing this too much to ‘Docile’, but oh well ... glad it exists anyway. I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Out April 6th, 2021.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Sabetha

    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 thi 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.

  23. 5 out of 5

    Kristina

    First, Become Ashes was one of my most anticipated reads of 2021. I couldn’t wait to read it and tried to hold out until closer to release date. I made it to December 2020 before I had to pick it up. I really love how this book was written. It’s told in different point of views, some in the present and some in the past and I thought it really weaved the story together nicely. What drew me into this book was the cult plot. I love stories where a cult is involved and the characters have to learn h First, Become Ashes was one of my most anticipated reads of 2021. I couldn’t wait to read it and tried to hold out until closer to release date. I made it to December 2020 before I had to pick it up. I really love how this book was written. It’s told in different point of views, some in the present and some in the past and I thought it really weaved the story together nicely. What drew me into this book was the cult plot. I love stories where a cult is involved and the characters have to learn how to live on the outside. This cult was definitely different as well. They were taught to believe in magic, while being physically and sexually abused by the elders. They learned that their power came through pain. Lark and Kane has been through a lot of that pain, both being abused in unfathomable ways. I would have liked to see them deal with what happened to them in the cult. I feel like the ending happened to quick, which is the only fault I had with this book. While this book isn’t going to be for everyone, I do recommend it. Please look at the trigger warnings before reading though.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Yvonne

    Not really what I was expecting. The story kept being pushed aside by sexual scenes that weren't necessary to tell the story of abuse by the leader of the cult. Lark was so mislead by Nova that it took a long time to realize that Kane was right, there were no monsters except Nova. Not really what I was expecting. The story kept being pushed aside by sexual scenes that weren't necessary to tell the story of abuse by the leader of the cult. Lark was so mislead by Nova that it took a long time to realize that Kane was right, there were no monsters except Nova.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Rae

    A huge thank you to Tor for allowing me to read this title. First off, some content warnings: rape, abuse of a minor, self-harm, violence. I read DOCILE earlier this year and didn't love it as much as I wanted to. Still, I found the writing to be excellent, and the obvious fanfic influences charming. FIRST, BECOME ASHES was going to be an insta-read for Szpara alone, but the blurb sealed it for me. FIRST, BECOME ASHES is not an easy book. The content warnings listed don't give you the full picture A huge thank you to Tor for allowing me to read this title. First off, some content warnings: rape, abuse of a minor, self-harm, violence. I read DOCILE earlier this year and didn't love it as much as I wanted to. Still, I found the writing to be excellent, and the obvious fanfic influences charming. FIRST, BECOME ASHES was going to be an insta-read for Szpara alone, but the blurb sealed it for me. FIRST, BECOME ASHES is not an easy book. The content warnings listed don't give you the full picture of the horrors Lark was subject to by the Fellowship of the Anointed. Szpara handles the subject of long-term sexual abuse and manipulation well; you can that there was care in writing the nuances of an imperfect victim. And Lark is very much an "imperfect victim." He's an unreliable narrator and a bit of a zealot. Though we as readers know the Fellowship of the Anointed is nothing more than a cult and that monsters and magic don't exist, Lark very much believes the opposite. You might find yourself wanting to grab him by the shoulders and shake him on occasion—I know I did. But it's his refusal to accept that all of his pain and suffering was for nothing that makes him such a sympathetic character. We always tell ourselves that we would never end up like the people we see in cult documentaries. That we are superior, or that those in cults are somehow weaker, but what Szpara so expertly demonstrates is that if hope is a powerful motivator, hopelessness is possibly even more so. But FIRST, BECOME ASHES is not a hopeless story; it is a tragedy, an epic hero's journey, a dark comedy, fandom lit, and much more. It subverts your expectations and blurs the line between reality and fantasy. I did have a few qualms, of course. While there is a cast of characters outside of Lark, you get the sense they're only there to prop up Lark. That's fine and all, but since we do get chapters told from the POV of these characters, it would have been nice to see them fully realized. Even Calvin felt more like a plot device than a fully-realized character, and I found his relationship with Lark to be awkward and inconsistent. (That said, I may or may not have teared up at the parting words of Calvin's final chapter) Despite it's shortcomings, this was an enjoyable read that has earned a place on my Best of 2020 list. I'm glad there's a market for queer authors to write messy queer stories, and I can't wait to see what weird, dark read Szpara comes up with next.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Dom

    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 m 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 in. 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.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Kortni

    First off, I would like to thank TorDotCom for the physical ARC and the opportunity to read this highly anticipated 2021 release! Secondly, I would like to forewarn anyone to please research the content warnings for this book. While my rating is low, it is NOT because of the content of this book. There are ample warnings printed in this book. The only thing I wasn't warned about was the handful of HP references which detracted from the story and were completely unnecessary. A character does not First off, I would like to thank TorDotCom for the physical ARC and the opportunity to read this highly anticipated 2021 release! Secondly, I would like to forewarn anyone to please research the content warnings for this book. While my rating is low, it is NOT because of the content of this book. There are ample warnings printed in this book. The only thing I wasn't warned about was the handful of HP references which detracted from the story and were completely unnecessary. A character does not have to reference HP in order for me to believe they are a "nerd". I read Docile last year and was in love with it immediately. I found everything in the book to be handled expertly and the writing and story to be superb. I only docked it 0.5 points for it going a little too long at the end and not enjoying some of the later scenes, but some of that can purely chocked up to taste. Overall, I was very much looking forward to Szpara's sophomore title and even more excited to have been sent an ARC. I cannot express how disappointed this book left me. The premise sounds unique and interesting and read like a blend of modern fantasy realism and psychological elements. None of these landed, despite knowing that the author has the talent to make something so unique work. In short, some faults could have been solved with an additional 100-200 pages in order to better flesh out all characters and the "magic" system. But that's just the short of it... Let's first tackle the magic system. The entire premise of this novel is that the members of this cult believe magic is real and then upon entering the real world, discover that magic is not real...or is it? That whole question runs throughout this book, making the reader wonder the same. is the magic real or not? Because the magic system is meant to be questions, it is not as well-fleshed out as I would want it to be. I am left with so many questions concerning the cult and its relation to the "magic" when in reality, the chapters that take place in the past are the perfect way to explain more to the readers about the magic. Instead we only got just enough to have more questions and no answers. And because of the lack of definition, the magic seems to work and not work at convenient times in the story. It works in dire need, it doesn't work at times it should work...and even when it does work, it feels like the magic not working does not create any more of an obstacle for the protagonists to overcome. This leads to a good place to discuss the plot. The overall plot was okay, but there were some major flaws. To start, the way magic factors into the plot (i.e. only there when convenient), as previously mentioned. I also had issue with the end of the "journey." I think the way the protagonist interacted with the outside world, and in particular the people in Arkansas, was completely idealistic for what society "should" be (perhaps in the author's view). Everyone was happy to help the protagonist and literally interfered with local, state, and federal authorities to help some kid they had heard about on social media (and the news, labeled as "armed and dangerous"...). It was completely unrealistic to me and I could not suspend my disbelief enough to even somewhat give credence to the ridiculous manner law enforcement was presented. The cult was being investigated by the FBI. THE FBI. And yet some Dollar General cosplayer decides he is okay with helping go against federal law enforcement. He barely gives any thoughts to the repercussions of his actions, as is the case with practically every character in this book. And if I am being honest, the end brings no closure or repercussions to any of their actions anyway. So yeah, I guess you can be an accomplice to a man wanted by the FBI if you believe hard enough and convince yourself magic is real. In addition to the complete lack of consequences in terms of plot, the existing plot was centered around the leader of the cult being arrested and charged with their crimes. Yet we hear nothing about this. It all occurs pretty much off-page and there is no additional information given. Docile turned into a pretty heavy procedural case in the latter portion when it could have gone without some of it. Yet this book desperately needed even just a little glimpse into the course proceedings. This is where about 100 of those extra pages I wanted could have gone to...the other 100 should have gone towards character development. One of the reasons I loved Docile so much is because we got two very solid POV characters who we got to know very closely and could track their mental shifts and thoughts processes throughout the entire book. This book felt flimsy in comparison. Characters felt like cardboard cutouts of their character "types," as one reviewer stated, and I couldn't agree more. Lark was a rash fanatic, Calvan was an enabling nerd, Kane was a caring savior. All until they did complete 180 flips in characters. Then would flop right back. The characters were wishy-washy at best and two-dimensional at worst. There wasn't anything for me to latch onto or root for. I actually wanted them to get caught by the FBI more often than I wanted them to keep escaping the FBI (somehow...how they continue to evade the FBI for so long blows my mind). Maybe I am too much of a cynic for this book. It feels ungrounded and even whimsical in its sentiments, despite its heavy themes and topics, and I just could not suspend my disbelief enough to let these things slide to enjoy this book. As I rated it two stars, I do believe the ideas were solid, just not the approach and execution of them. The writing was easy, yet conveyed strong messages without being too overbearing. And as I mentioned Szpara does a great job handling tough topics while maintaining a theme of healing and hope. I know I really tore into this book, but its because I know the potential is there with this author, this book just missed the mark in a lot of ways for me. Regardless, I will continue to support this author (talking about u, paperback of Docile sitting in my cart) and am very excited for Szpara's future works...I think he mentioned vampires are involved in his next book and I am excited to see what he does with that!

  28. 4 out of 5

    Zoey Erby

    * I was sent a physical ARC by the publisher in exchange for an honest review* *rounded up from a 2.5* So let me start off with the good things, the things I actually enjoyed about the book. I liked the inclusion of a content warning page prior to the actual title page of the book. I think all books that have triggering content should include these content warning pages. There's nothing worse than reading a book and suddenly coming across something upsetting. So it's safe to say that I believe if * I was sent a physical ARC by the publisher in exchange for an honest review* *rounded up from a 2.5* So let me start off with the good things, the things I actually enjoyed about the book. I liked the inclusion of a content warning page prior to the actual title page of the book. I think all books that have triggering content should include these content warning pages. There's nothing worse than reading a book and suddenly coming across something upsetting. So it's safe to say that I believe if a reader gets offended by anything that is warned on the content warning page, it is 100% on them and not the author. (The emboldened words at the bottom of the summary are the same on the content warning page, in case you were curious for the trigger warnings). In terms of the actual content of the book, I vibe with Szpara's writing. I think that his writing is very accessible and simple, but effective. When I say that the writing is simple, I don't mean that in a mean way. Simple writing is digestible, it makes the story more appealing for a broader audience. And though it was simple, his writing was also very strong and harrowing at different points. He was able to really capture the feelings and the intentions of the characters. Their trauma was not taken for granted, the things they went through were not romanticized. The traumatic events of the book were handled very effectively. There was inclusivity in the cast of characters, which was nice. I liked the addition of the open relationship/throuple because love triangles are dumb. Throuples are infinitely better. Some of the characters felt well rounded enough for me to become attached. I definitely liked Kane the most of everyone, and Lillian (to a lesser extent). But, me saying that gives some insight into my feelings about the book. If you read it, I think you'll understand. I think that one's projected enjoyment of the book can be determined based on the characters that you like. If you just love Calvin, I think that you will like this book. Chances are that you have a more hopeful outlook, you're not as cynical and you can accept the premise this book begins to shift into in the latter half. This is where I start to get really negative. I have to start my criticisms by saying that I think this book should have been 150-200 pages longer. I feel like most of my qualms would have been solved if it could have only been longer. If you took the chunk of Docile that almost made it too long and tacked it onto this one, it would've been much better. By this I mean the court case. I went into Docile not expecting a trial whereas I needed one for First Become Ashes and I didn't get it. I have so many questions about the cult, Nova, and what happened afterward. It was disappointing to me to never understand the true breadth of the Fellowship of the Anointed, that was what I really wanted the most. If it had had those extra 150-200 pages, then we could've gotten not only the trial, we could have seen some more healing for the characters. They went through so much and we only get a glimpse into the healing and that was mainly Lark (although not as much as I would've liked, which I will get into later). I just could not understand the purpose of the book. I went into it expecting one thing, and I came out of it unclear what I was meant to get out of it. I don't know if magic was meant to be real. I did NOT want magic to be real. It felt to me, that if magic was real, then Nova won. It felt like justification for all of the awful things that these cult members went through. That obviously was not the point. The point was probably something more hopeful, more in the vein of "magic isn't real because of the pain, rather it exists in spite of it." But that just wasn't how I felt at all. If magic had been real, I would've liked a much more fleshed out system. If it isn't pain, then what is it? I need it to be fleshed out, because otherwise it just still feels like Nova was justified. Without a specific system (learned or just pre-established) magic feels cheap and convenient. It only seemed to be "real" when it was convenient to move the story forward. On the same page, it felt like none of the character's motivations made much sense to me. They did initially, but it felt like whenever they would have a change of heart they would backpedal almost immediately. This happened with Calvin, Kane, and especially Lark. Not so much Deryn, but Deryn kind of just got on my nerves. I didn't vibe with their whole personality, though it felt appropriate for their character. It felt like Lark never really learned anything. If anything, whenever he would begin to question things, he would be brought right back into his beliefs by something happening that justified his actions (his actions which were intention to commit felonies). This book is very divisive, similar to how Docile was divisive, but for completely different reasons. This one depends on your ability to suspend your disbelief and accept what is happening. You have to be rooting for magic, rather than for boring, common sense (like me). As much as I hate to say it, I think people that love The Foxhole Court, will like this book. I really disliked The Foxhole Court, but a ton of people love it. Somehow this book has the same energy. Let me be clear again, I did NOT hate First Become Ashes. Compared to The Foxhole Court, this one was much better, far more palatable. But, I'm just saying that if you enjoyed that book, I get the feeling that this one will hit the mark for you as well. So, I didn't really like the book. I found it to be disappointing for me personally. I do think that there are people who would really enjoy it though. I've seen reviews of people really enjoying it. So, if you're not naturally cynical/are able to suspend your disbelief for contemporary stories and you think the premise sound interesting, read it! For everyone else who did not like The Foxhole Court and is just naturally negative/cynical, maybe try Docile. It has some similar elements to this one, but with a Black Mirror feel. It had its' problematic moments, but I really enjoyed it.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Summer (speaking_bookish)

    Docile wrecked me. I’m almost afraid to read this- but I need to, as soon as freaking possible! Trigger Warnings: First, Become Ashes contains explicit sadomasochism and sexual content, as well as abuse and consent violations, including rape.

  30. 4 out of 5

    Monte Price

    A long-ish vlog style discussion of my thoughts. There are times where I find myself unable to rate a book, and this is one of those times. Sometimes it's because the book is in a genre I don't read a lot of, and trying to suss out if it's actually a me problem or just elements of the tropes readers expect is just not worth the effort. Here, it's mostly because I went into this book with the expectation that it wasn't going to be for me given how much I disliked Szpara's novel last year. While in A long-ish vlog style discussion of my thoughts. There are times where I find myself unable to rate a book, and this is one of those times. Sometimes it's because the book is in a genre I don't read a lot of, and trying to suss out if it's actually a me problem or just elements of the tropes readers expect is just not worth the effort. Here, it's mostly because I went into this book with the expectation that it wasn't going to be for me given how much I disliked Szpara's novel last year. While in some ways this is a step forward, in a lot of ways I think this was more of a step back, and a stagnation in the discussions of pain and pleasure that Szpara so clearly wants to have a discussion about. After having slept on this, and revisiting that ill-conceived promo tweet that TorDotCom Publishing eventually took down, I've settled on the idea that the magic in this book despite being used as a "this character is crazy" trope, was definitely meant to be real. Otherwise, whatever happens in the third act of this is supposed to be entirely metaphorical at best, or simply doesn't make sense at the very worst. Once again we have a book that links violent sexual trauma to a character's kinks, and while that could definitely be true for a lot of people in the world it seems very suspect to me that this is a running theme in Szpara's work. It feels more of a commentary on people that are into sadomasochism than it does a particular character quirk. While the book does include a warning that there are consent violations in the text up to and including characters being raped, the sheer number of rape scenes included started to feel gratuitous. It started to feel that those scenes were only being included to motivate one of the perspective characters and that was clear after the first few chapters they had, I definitely didn't need to continue to read all of the ways this character was abused. I also felt that the warning should have included self harm, because while yes part of what unfolds in this is just regular degular abuse as part of the "magic system" and cult beliefs, there is a scene in the book where Lark self harm and it involves burning flesh. So if that's going to cause you harm, please do take note that the scene happens very early on in the novel. (view spoiler)[I also think that this scene mirrors a scene where Kane has to burn Lark in roughly the same area right before he jerks Lark off for the first time, once again tying this abuse with sexual gratification in a weird way, even more so when you add in the layer of sexual gratification not being a thing that is allowed in the cult. This action again leads Kane to allow Lark to beat him to the point he can barely walk, so while Lark is inflicting the damage, Kane knows that he could stop it but wants it to continue and allows for it, crossing into this self-harm space that is very nebulous and not well addressed in the text if you ask me. (hide spoiler)] So many of the same issues around consent and the discussions of characters moving on from that mirror Szpara's novel from last year, and I think that the discussion has not evolved. There is no added layers of nuance and the story ends slightly less ambiguously, but still not in a place where I as a reader enjoyed anything. Particularly because Calvin as a character might have been the worst part of the book for me. So no, I will not be rating this on Goodreads, but I also cannot at all imagine who the publisher thought this book was for. I do not know who the target demo is after having finished reading it, but whoever it is I hope they find this text and can enjoy it far more than I did. That said, I do think that most readers can skip over this one and pick up literally any other book.

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