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First, Become Ashes

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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 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.

304 pages, Hardcover

First published April 6, 2021

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About the author

K.M. Szpara

18 books443 followers
K.M. Szpara is a queer and trans author who lives in Baltimore, MD, with a tiny dog. Kellan's debut alt-/near-future novel, DOCILE (Spring 2020, Tor.com Publishing), explores the snowballing debt crisis, consent, and privilege, and can be described as "really gay". He is the author of "Small Changes Over Long Periods of Time," a Hugo and Nebula nominated novelette about a gay trans man who's bitten by a vampire. More of his fiction can be found in venues such as Uncanny, Lightspeed, and Shimmer. You can find him on the Internet at kmszpara.com or on Twitter at @KMSzpara.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 245 reviews
Profile Image for Madison.
650 reviews360 followers
November 10, 2020
**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.
Profile Image for Kate.
1,240 reviews2,228 followers
May 4, 2021

Well I can certainly say I think Szpara is going to be a new favorite author.

I see a lot of people talking about how bad this book is in a similar way that I saw people talking about "docile." This books is DARK - ANY book about children growing up in a cult is going to be dark - and Szpara doesn't shy away from the gritty, truly fucked up shit that exists in these worlds. This isn't a bad book - it's dark, it's heavy, it's going to make you uncomfortable, and THATS THE POINT.

I thought the set up was fascinating, the cult stuff was well done, all of the explorations of abuse were well done and made the reader properly uncomfortable and made you think. I loved the characters, the representation is awesome (nb characters, queer men, a gay asian man which wow we never see that, polygamous relationships, etc.)

I also just enjoyed the magical realism, social commentary and metaphors of this book. I thought it was all very well done.

This book is not for everyone and definitely heed the trigger warning at the beginning of the book and also any lists you can find here on GR.
Profile Image for Eli.
17 reviews49 followers
August 21, 2020
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!

Profile Image for Carol (bookish_notes).
1,360 reviews108 followers
July 1, 2021
The full review is posted on my blog.

After reading this entire book, I am still left asking the question, who is this book FOR?

This is without a doubt the most baffling book I’ve read to date and I just feel bad for the PR folks and the marketing team because this is the weirdest, non-marketable book I’ve read. There’s no clear message who this is for unless you just have all this extra time to see what all the hoopla is about. This book is just bad.

I feel like this is a contemporary story, no matter how much this book pretends it’s not. I’ll dive more into that later in this review.

There are trigger warnings included in the beginning of this book but I would include cult indoctrination/brainwashing, torture, self inflicted burns, violence, grooming children, and extremely graphic on-the-page rape and sexual abuse.

*****check the rest of my review on my blog. GR can’t handle a 4400 word review. oops.*****

***Thanks to the publisher for approving me for this ARC on NetGalley.***
Profile Image for Lori.
1,490 reviews55.8k followers
March 14, 2021
Wow. I ended up liking this a whole lot more than I anticipated I would. I don't think the jacket copy does it justice.

A cult leader manages to seclude a bunch of people on a hill in the middle of a city, taught them to harness magicial powers, and prepared them for their quarter-century release into the "outside" to help rid the world of monsters (FOEs - Forces of Evil). When Kane, the first of the anointed, is sent beyond the fence to complete his quest, he is next seen in the company of the FBI, who quickly disbands the Fellowship and brings charges of abuse and assault against their leader.

As they all struggle to take in what is happening to them, Lark, Kane's partner and a hard core believer, resists what the FBI is telling him... believes they are corrupted by the monsters, and is determined to carry out his quest come hell or high water. It's a test of his faith as Lark refuses to reconcile what he's been taught with what he's now experiencing.

Picture it like a more science fictiony, violenty version of The Truman Show.

(The publisher made it clear that this book is filled with triggers - explicit sadomasochism and sexual content, as well as abuse and consent violations, including rape. While these did not bother me, they may bother you, so you should be aware.)

Profile Image for Sarah Meerkat.
338 reviews25 followers
January 8, 2021
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. "
Profile Image for Heron.
272 reviews32 followers
March 3, 2021
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.
Profile Image for Jordan (Jordy’s Book Club).
386 reviews19.8k followers
February 5, 2021
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
Profile Image for Dennis.
813 reviews1,600 followers
December 27, 2020
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.
Profile Image for Monte Price.
672 reviews1,833 followers
April 12, 2021
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.

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.
Profile Image for Page.
41 reviews2 followers
April 2, 2021
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✨.
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.
Profile Image for Sana.
1,087 reviews960 followers
Shelved as 'to-read-so-bad-it-hurts'
April 5, 2020
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

Profile Image for Charlotte.
682 reviews49 followers
September 15, 2020
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!
Profile Image for Ashley.
2,765 reviews1,766 followers
April 14, 2021
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.

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.
Profile Image for Sara (BookshelfSOS).
48 reviews13 followers
May 17, 2021
Why do I do this to myself? Why? I knew I probably wouldn't like First, Become Ashes because I didn't like Docile. But damn if the premise and the marketing didn't get me again.

The blurb on the front of this book promises that it will "tackle trauma and healing without flinching" which was incredibly misleading. Because while there is trauma - heaps of self-harm, abuse, and rape - there is no healing. At least not on the page. The journey from Lark being brainwashed by the cult he grew up in to "healed" is akin to teleportation: we were there one minute and now we're here. Tada! This is not a story about cult deprogramming. It is not a story about someone coming to terms with abuse. This is a story about tropes that Szpara thinks are fun and cutesy pop culture references, off-puttingly intertwined with graphic and intensely unsexy sex scenes.

Speaking of which, it feels irresponsible not to mention a warning about the sex scenes. Particularly if you are coming to this book looking for sensitivity around the subject of sexual assault or healing from sexual abuse, please know that you’re not going to get that here. The book warns you about the content at the beginning, but a content warning doesn’t have the context to inform the reader that this book doesn’t just contain scenes of sexual assault. It revels in them with voyeuristic pleasure (literally). If it seems like it might be more than just a bit irresponsible to lure readers in with a story of “healing from abuse” and then offer instead rape erotica, then I’m going to go ahead and call this book irresponsible. If you want to write rape erotica, do that. If you enjoy dark tropes, have the self-respect to own that. Just don’t dress up your darker fantasies in the politically correct language of the day and try to pass it off as “healing”.

Ok, with that out of the way I guess I’ll touch on some positives. I will say that I actually enjoyed the experience of reading First, Become Ashes more than Docile, mainly because I think Szpara has improved as a writer. So props to growth and development, I guess. I thought that the pacing and the technical aspects of the writing here were both good. Despite being very uninvested in the story (I can't really enjoy a story when I dislike every character), I managed to get through the book quickly and was actually curious about some of the more mysterious plot threads that were set up. Sadly, the payoff for all of these questions is exactly nil. Not one of them will be answered, or at least not to my satisfaction.

The biggest frustration for me with First, Become Ashes is the wasted potential. In the right author's hands the story of two young men growing up in an abusive cult and then having one of them stop believing and "betray" the cult to the FBI is such a good hook. There is love and betrayal. There is confusion of what is real and what isn't. There are questions of loyalty and how far you should go to appease someone you love when they are doing harm to themselves. All of these questions make for compelling character motivations and arcs. But we never see that here because all 300 pages of First, Become Ashes are devoted to Szpara exploring things that he thinks are cute or cool to the detriment of any enjoyment that the reader might have had. I guess if your interests as a reader are perfectly aligned with the author's - if you enjoy Lord of the Rings, Dungeons & Dragons, Harry Potter, cosplay, nerd culture, *and* BDSM - then it's *possible* you might find this book right up your alley. I would not say that it's a guarantee though, because everything here is superficial and ultimately irrelevant to the story. The trappings of geekiness and of kinkiness are seemingly just there to entertain the author and anyone else who finds kinship in shared love of intellectual property. Sadly, that's not nearly enough for me and this book proved to be a frustration and a disappointment.
Profile Image for iam.
982 reviews130 followers
April 6, 2021
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.
Profile Image for Ian.
344 reviews14 followers
April 21, 2021
If you're friends with me on here, you are probably connected with me on Instagram, and I'll have longer (blog length, possibly essay length) thoughts on this one later. But this is one of the wildest, most irresponsible, most nonsensical books I've ever read.

Instead of comparison titles, I'm gonna offer things to read instead:

If you like the idea of big showdowns and quests and monster hunting, read Ring Shout.

If you like the idea of magic and reconciling trauma and Queer identity, read Carry On.
Profile Image for Toby.
134 reviews74 followers
August 26, 2021
Holy unreliable narrator, Batman.

First, Become Ashes was my most anticipated read for this year and I’m glad that it held up to most of my expectations.

FBA is a book filled with monsters, magic and...unpleasant circumstances. It’s an intense read from start to end. I was continuously questioning what the hell was going on and what was actually real or not.

Lark was a really hard character to enjoy for most of the book. His devotion to the cult and the constant rebellious attitude grated on me, but I think that’s due to the fact I just wanted him to understand and get help with the abuse and trauma he’s suffered through.

Kane’s chapters were my favourite. I found them so intriguing and engaging and it made me want to delve deeper into the history of the cult. His character arc was interesting and I mostly just felt so awful for him.

I can say I wasn’t entirely fond of the whole Calvin thing, like i was a bit bummed when the plot took that type of turn because I was really hoping for a good cult based story, but it was still enjoyable.

Over all, I enjoyed First, Become Ashes.
It wasn’t as heavy as Docile but really packed that emotional punch that Szpara knows how to dish out.

[ 3 stars due to the HP references in the book and the acknowledgment. ]
Profile Image for Sage Agee.
137 reviews423 followers
November 8, 2021
I wasn’t expecting to read this in one day, especially because the arc has been sitting on my netgalley shelf for almost a year. I can definitely see this book being a polarizing read, and I’d absolutely advise paying attention to the TWs. That being said there’s something really innocent about this book. About Lark and his loyalty, Cane and his ability to break free, and Calvin and his deep love.

But honestly? I don’t know how I feel about this book, so I’m just gonna let that be what it is.
Profile Image for Ash | Wild Heart Reads.
245 reviews141 followers
May 19, 2021
Lark has spent his entire life training for the moment he steps outside of Druid Hill for the first time, so that he can save humanity from evil and battle monsters. His partner Kane is the first leave and Lark feels his absence keenly, longing for the day when he gets to join Kane outside the walls. When Kane returns first bringing with him the FBI and the outside world, everything Lark knows, about himself, about the fellowship and about monsters changes.

First, Become Ashes was a wonderful book about monsters (real and imagined) and magic and power. Much like Docile, this book isn't always an easy read - Lark is a victim of a cult, which is headed by an abusive woman. But it is a great book. Lark has been brainwashed to believe that all the pain and abuse he has suffered is necessary for his magic to flourish and to be able to complete his quest. It isn't an easy journey for Lark when Kane and those from the outside try to open his eyes to the truth. After all, some lies can be so much easier to believe than terrible truths.

I absolutely loved the magic element to First, Become Ashes. It will have you questioning - is it real, is it in Lark's head? And Calvin's desire for it to be real was so personable. I cannot tell you how many times I wished as a kid (and every sometimes as an adult) for magic to be real, for there to be more to life than just the mundane. Particularly with it tied up in his desire to belong to something - more than once my heart ached both for him and for the child I was.

At the time I started First, Become Ashes I was in something of a reading slump so it did take me a little while to get truly into the book and I had gone into it with not so much expectations but what I thought it might be having read Docile, which it wasn't. That's definitely on me though and my expectations as a reader rather than a flaw of the book.

First, Become Ashes isn't quite as heavy as Docile (though it does still carry significant trigger warnings so bear that in mind) - the ending was so full of hope that it stayed with me for days. The culmination of Lark's journey and the beginning of his next path was so perfect, I couldn't see it ending any other way. I cannot wait to read K.M Szpara's next book, he is a truly talented writer and while his books aren't always easy to read they are so well written and the characters so well brought to life that you cannot help but be drawn in.

"None of the fantasy I've read has prepared me for this. For real danger and magic and blood - so much blood. For tangling with people and their histories. Reading is not the same as experiencing."

.Content warning:. contains explicit sadomasochism and sexual content, as well as abuse and consent violations, including rape. Torture, brainwashing, gaslighting, self-harm.

*I received a review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All thoughts and opinions are my own*
Profile Image for Laura (crofteereader).
961 reviews38 followers
March 30, 2021
Though blessed with a much clearer purpose/direction/plot than Szpara's debut, FIRST BECOME ASHES was a bit less compelling. I will say that Szpara knows how to draw a reader in, using shock and almost a feeling of voyeurism as we slowly peel back the layers of Lark's and Kane's characters, grounding us with the more conventionally relatable Calvin and Deryn.

My favorite sections were Kane's confessions. I think watching him pick apart his trauma, lay everything bare as he grows more and more uncomfortable with what is being demanded of him and, worse, Lark is really the core of the story. Lark's blind belief masks the trauma and pain of what he experienced, making the abuse feel more like a kink than the trauma that it is. Without Kane's balance, it really could be seen that way - especially when Calvin takes up the mantle and compares it to healthy, consensual BDSM (though you do get to see Calvin's understanding when it goes beyond that and how it affects him).

Also the way Calvin focuses so heavily on communication and trust, even when we can't be sure just how much Lark understands. This is extremely important in a story where so many choices about their bodies are taken away from them, and Calvin served as a fantastic anchor to counterbalance that.

It was also an interesting choice to make us doubt the presence of magic. The whole time "is it real? Does it work?" And there's a constant push and pull as the four perspective characters experience things differently.

Also worth emphasizing content warnings for this book: non-consensent / dubious consent sex, sexually explicit scenes, torture, and several HP references.

{Thank you Pride Book Tours and Tor.com for the DRC and finished copy of this book in exchange for my honest review; all thoughts are my own}
Profile Image for Lois Young.
318 reviews63 followers
May 17, 2021
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."

You can read my review here: https://mistyaquavenatus.com/2021/02/...

NOTE: TRIGGER WARNING for the content within this story.
Profile Image for Victor.
214 reviews
June 6, 2021
Oh that was just not good.

My rating plummeted really fast with this one.

There was potential here but it fell flat so hard. Nothing truly came together.

I really wanted to love it. I still have Docile to read and I am feeling very hopeful that will be much better than this book which should’ve stayed in the drafts...
Profile Image for Kortni.
140 reviews12 followers
April 25, 2021
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!
Profile Image for jacobi.
312 reviews22 followers
June 30, 2022
mr. szpara is dragging his kinks kicking and screaming out of the kindle unlimited, self-pubbed ghetto and into mainstream sff. for the first half of this novel, i kept asking questions like ‘why are the police holding potentially hostile cult members in a hotel that is currently hosting a convention’ and ‘how did a hotel currently hosting a convention have enough free rooms to host a bunch of cult members’ and ‘why is this fbi agent following an armed and dangerous suspect with no backup besides the supsect’s partner and sibling’ why is my good sis setting herself up for failure? once i stopped asking these questions and started reading it as though it was one of the yaoi light novels i stole from the local barned and noble in the early 2000s i enjoyed it a little more. but only a little. usually when i say that something reads like fanfic i mean it as a compliment. there’s a certain rhythm and cadence that fic writers develop, and that rhythm changes based on the fandom and website that the writer uses. livejournal users tend to have a more flowery prose and a focus on establishing a tone. tumblr/ao3 writers have a more kinetic prose and a focus on dialogue. szpara’s writing reminds me of wattpad: bland prose, muted melodrama, a sense that the writer is writing in autopilot and can only stir themselves awake when sex is happening. the rape scenes are the crux of the novel but we never really dig into how the characters feel about their abuse. i guess i shouldn’t be surprised that the man who wrote a book about the relationship between capitalism and slavery and set it in America and completely ignored the history of American slavery would want to side step the thornier aspects of his work, especially when it seems that they are only in his work in the first place to make things taboo and “hotter”. the literary equivalent of a what-are-you-doing-step-bro porn scene.
Profile Image for Holly (The GrimDragon).
1,046 reviews235 followers
April 12, 2021
“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**
Profile Image for Cozy Reading Times.
410 reviews9 followers
April 19, 2023
This was an interesting book but not as good as Szpara's debut novel Docile.
The concept was especially fascinating because, as a fantasy novel, one truly couldn't know whether the "magic" in the book was all just made up or held some kernel of truth. It's an exploration of pain and enduration - an obsession so deep that the psyche can't accept the truths that deny it.
The execution wasn't ideal though. At times the story dragged a little and the whole plot line of the geek enabling the protagonist simply because he wanted magic to be real, wasn't deep enough explored/discussed to justify its presence. There were also several times one had to suspend one's disbelief to still enjoy the story - which then led to the whole story seeming less serious (which seemed inappropriate due to the dark topics of the book).
There were several emotional moments and I like how the author always explored very messy themes and doesn't shy away from controversial topics. But as I said, I think Docile had a better execution and was better structured. Plus, the multi-pov story line led to a more shallow exploration of each one's personality. Docile did a better job here, too.
Profile Image for Sherron Wahrheit.
549 reviews
August 25, 2021
I’ve been trying to catch up on the NetGalley reviews I need to write (so they won’t fire me)! ;)

Besides my “to do” list, NetGalley also shows the books I’ve requested but have been denied. Today I saw this book in my list of rejections. So I decided to read a few reviews here, to see if I should put it in my TBR list. Maybe I would have actually liked it, since I’ve already read something earlier by him.

That something I’ve already read was Docile, which i found at the library. I use Overdrive’s normal filter criteria, and I was pissed off that the library let an X rated book slide through under the radar. Yes, that is a valid complaint, since i had explicitly filtered out “adult” content. But my baffled and open yet naive mind actually enjoyed the novel enough to leave a four-star review. It’s not quite five-star because it didn’t delve deeply. In fact, not deep at all. Maybe I was just too impressed by how groundbreaking it seemed to me.

Here is another book by him, once again, flying under the radar trying to mask itself as a vanilla best seller type novel with a generic bland cover, but if you look at the content, reviewers’ descriptions show it even more X rated / disturbing than the first. OK. Yay freedom of speech. Boo censorship. My problem isn’t quite so much the content as it is truth in advertising. One of the reviewers here shows a screen capture of the initial book cover, which clearly depicts the graphic nature of the content. THAT book cover is the one they should have used. But instead they got feedback that the original cover was too offensive. Well, I say the cover should reflect the content, not obscure it. And apparently the content of this current book is no deep dive either.

I have read too many crappy books lately to give this this book another glance. The earlier four-star rating gave him the benefit of the doubt on something that could have been deep. But when an author is skimming along doing the same ol’ same ol’ gratuitous grab ass without consent (or meaning), it’s a failure in my eyes. So I’m adding this to the list of books that seemed interesting but aren’t going to enrich my reading experiences. Way too many books out there for me to come back and revisit this turkey.

Sour grapes? Maybe. But they were prescient to reject me, and I appreciate that. Less work and fewer obligatory reviews for me to write.

Thank you, NetGalley, this is my honest review.
Profile Image for Elliot.
616 reviews37 followers
September 5, 2021
I'm really on the fence about this one. It has plenty of ingredients I find intriguing: unreliable narration, cults, queer romance, and overall weirdness. The pacing kept me reading and I whipped through this fairly swiftly. It falls into the category of stories that are super messed up, which is usually something I find intriguing, but was at times really uncomfortable. (This book qualifies for pretty much every trigger warning connected to abuse I can think of, and then some.) I never really fully connected to this narrative though. I appreciate that Szpara wanted to keep the nature of reality ambiguous - is there really magic in this world, or is it all a delusion/metaphor? - but I wanted a hard answer on that, and the doubt made it difficult for me to connect to anyone emotionally. I spent most of my time with this story hunting for clues, analyzing, and just trying to answer that one central question. As a result I never fully invested in the rest. This won't bother some people, so your milage may vary.

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