First, Become Ashes, by K.M. Szpara

Trigger warnings for sexual and physical abuse.

All Lark knows is the Fellowship. The leader, Nova, has trained him and the other Anointed to use their magic to fight monsters that control the outside world. First, Become Ashes, by K.M. Szpara, opens on that day that the FBI raids the Fellowship’s compound, arrests Nova, and asks Lark to testify against his entire way of life. What surprised me most about this book was that, despite all of this psychological heaviness, the ending comes too easily and is far too happy. I know it’s strange to complain about a happy ending, but I believe that happy endings must be earned.

Lark is one of the most devoted of Nova’s followers. He has shaped himself into the perfect warrior for her. So when the FBI crashes into his life, all he can see around him are monsters and FOEs (Forces of Evil). Even when Agent Miller, the agent in charge of the whole operation, starts to tell him of the abuses Nova perpetrated, he refuses to believe. Instead of recognizing what’s been done to him, Lark gives himself a mission: destroy the monsters who have taken his lover and partner, Kane, and escape from the FBI. His only allies are two cosplayers he meets after bolting from the hotel where the FBI are keeping former members of the Fellowship and finds himself in the middle of a convention.

Most of First, Become Ashes is a chase. On one side are Lark and his allies. On the other are Agent Miller and Kane. In between chapters that describe a multi-state chase, flashback chapters reveal the extreme abuse suffered by Kane, Lark, and other members of the Fellowship. These chapters are hard to read—and they’re part of the reason why I struggled so much with the ending. In real life or in another kind of story, Lark and Kane would need years of therapy to deprogram themselves and come to terms with how Nova used them. Kane was able to break free, but Lark never really stops believing in Nova’s teachings about magic and monsters. He only sidesteps from his conditioning when he discovers that he can work magic in a way that doesn’t involve extreme physical pain. The ultra happy ending at the end of the book doesn’t feel right. It feels rushed. It also felt like the resolution of the book was twisted so that magic could be real.

I am curious to know what other readers think of this book. I’ve seen a bit of buzz about it in the book reviews. I suspect part of that buzz comes from the way this book wholeheartedly embraces sexual diversity. Lark and Kane are both men who love each other, who explore their attraction within the confines of the Fellowship’s teachings. Lark’s sibling uses they/them pronouns. Both of Lark’s cosplaying allies are gay. I think this is a good thing, but it didn’t make up for the facile way that long-term abuse is handled (or not handled) in this novel.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

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