“First Become Ashes” Must First Care for Itself

TW: sexual assault, rape, torture, nonconsensual BDSM practices, gaslighting, child abuse, child sexual assault

First, Become Ashes is the second book by speculative author K.M. Szpara, marketed as a road trip gone weird, as an ex-cult member flees his past, modern supporting cast in tow. Our main characters, Lark and Calvin, team up to give the recovering cult member the chance to fulfill the destiny he still ardently believes in, even as the lies around his upbringing, his family, and his life on Druid Hill begin to unravel. With the FBI recruiting Lark’s ex-boyfriend and his sibling, the book becomes a cat-and-mouse chase across the states, with frequent flashbacks into the cult, giving us a larger picture of the kind of abuse and violence occurring on Druid Hill.

While this sounds like an introspective journey of self-discovery and coming to terms with past abuse, there is, throughout this whole book, a complete lack of care. There is a lack of care for the reader, who is subjected to rape-as-titillation nearly the entire book. There is a lack of care for the author, who has been convinced this book is the correct follow-up to Docile, a successful sci-fi erotica that nevertheless failed to go beyond surface-level social critiques and instead floundered within its own oceanic premise. There is a lack of care for the characters themselves, tortured, traumatized, abused, who never receive answers, catharsis, or even a real ending. All of this carelessness is heightened by a plot that, frankly, never makes sense of itself, where each character’s justification of their actions just leaves the readers with a big question mark over their heads. This lack of care creates a book that is messy, unfocused, and, sadly, exposes a system of publishing that has hitched its wagon to a young, talented trans author and thoroughly let him down.

We’ll start with the fact that there is no sense of who this book is for. There are four point-of-view characters, three of whom are (ex-) cultists, the fourth of which is a professional cosplayer who seems to have never quite gotten over the fact that he didn’t receive his Hogwarts letter at age 11. None of the characters are truly kind to each other and because nobody is working together, on the same page, there are few stakes in the narrative. The main character, who we are supposed to love, root for, care about, is Lark, a magical young man who has been subjected to rape, torture, sexual and emotional abuse, and who is absolutely, completely delusional.

All this makes it hard to find your place as a reader in FBA. The cult is bad, but Lark thinks it’s good, and we’re supposed to sympathize with him for being obstinate, mean, and reckless? His love interest, Calvin, is a pro-nerd, but there is a complete and utter misunderstanding of fandom in the book, wherein Calvin feels alone, dejected, and utterly lost within fan culture, despite being a successful, happy, and popular pro-fan. Without any sense of normal, without any baseline, FBA creates a strange vortex of meandering goals and a slow plot primarily driven by Lark’s desire to “go west to slay a monster.”

Do we know what the monster is? No. Do we know why the cult wants to slay monsters? No. Do we know why Lark wants to do any of this? Because the cult said so.

Here’s where everything gets fuzzy, and this is the real, true problem with this book. The basic structure of the book makes little sense, the plot falls apart, and basic questions are simply never answered. To begin with, this is a cult book where in the first few chapters, the cult is busted, sending Lark out on his mission to slay monsters two months early. In this cult, you see, when you turn 25 you are sent out of the cult to fight monsters. That’s the only explanation we’re given. That’s all we know. The evil cult leader, Nova, teaches kids magic, and when they turn 25 she kicks them out with a mission to slay FOEs.

FOEs. Forces Of Evil.

I so wish I was making that up, but I’m not. The mythical, imagined bad guys developed by the cult leader for the purpose for frightening and controlling her flock are called…FOEs.

Cult is busted. Lark escapes cult bust. Deryn, Lark’s sibling (and fourth POV) is taken by the cult and they comply. Lark’s boyfriend, Kane, is working with the FBI because after he turns 25, gets kicked out, and told to find monsters he realizes that maybe that’s fucking crazytown, and turns himself in. A professional cosplayer, Calvin, is convinced by Lark (under threat of magical death) to help him go…West? To fight? Monsters? To find a FOE and hunt it down with a literal bow and arrow? Because that’s what the cult said so it must be true, no other explanation given?

I mean… I guess?

Continuing to muddy the reasoning behind any decision in this book, pretty early on, Lark and Calvin realize that they are being chased by the Actual FBI. However, they never quite seem to get caught. There’re no tails on their car, no account freezes, nothing. The closest thing that happens that’s even remotely federal is a generic, catch-all roadblock. Whatever the real FBI is doing in D.C., I hope it’s more than this book depicts, because FBA features an FBI agent who allows an ex-cultist to ride shotgun and handle her personal phone as they head a vague “west” on a hunch. It’s mindless. It makes no sense. And if there was a buddy-cop vibe, some kind of fun interaction, anything to make this palatable I wouldn’t care as much about whether or not the FBI was believable in a contemporary fantasy book.

But there’s not any of that, and so I’m left here, hands spread, asking what the hell kind of FBI agent is allowed to investigate her mother’s cult alongside former members of her mother’s cult without any partner, supervision, or backup?

There are two more parts of this book that merit dissecting; the magic and the BDSM, and I’m saving the sex stuff for last.

In the cult, Anointed children are taught magic by Nova. Magic is stored in the body when you experience pain. This means that throughout the book graphic torture scenes are the norm. Graphic torture scenes between lovers are even more common. Throughout the book, there is a strange split between magic being real and magic being made up. Lark believes, Calvin wants to believe, Deryn denies, Kane is confused. So what we end up with is a mishmash of perspectives, creating a strange sense of paranoia around magic. I understand that Szpara’s intent in FBA is to keep the reality of magic in his book as “in the dark” as possible and I’ll fully admit that this narrative would be hard for anyone, but with all the perspectives, all the moments where magic works across all of them, and the times when it doesn’t, makes for a confusing read. It’s clear that at the very least Lark believes, and that should have been enough, but I kept getting reminded of the scene from The Office where Dwight holds up a class photo of his time spent at the fake X-Men school.

That’s the vibe here. Not a strange, weird, “is it real, is it all in his head?” kind of vibe, but just one guy holding up a Polaroid saying “my mutant power is night-hearing and dogs understand where I’m pointing.”

All this push and pull is weirdly resolved when at the end of the book Lark just…finds a monster? On the side of a highway? In Arkansas, maybe? He finds a monster and kills it and sends up a protective barrier and that’s how magic is exposed to the world. How did the monster get there? What’s it doing? Who cares! Monster real, Lark stabby, plot done.

The worst part of leaving magic up in the air for so long, and then confirming it within the last few chapters is that ultimately, it proves that the cult was right. The methods might have been disgustingly wrong but at the end of the day, Nova knew something nobody else did. Nova is, perhaps unintentionally, validated at the end of the book. She might have been a sadistic rapist and serial abuser of children, but she knew magic existed when nobody else did. She is not only a true believer, but a prophet, and perhaps, to some, a martyr. While this contradiction could have been explored, or even made a central theme of the book, it’s completely overlooked, dropped carelessly by the wayside, utterly, incomprehensibly ignored.

And then, on top of all this, are the underlying BDSM themes in the book. I hesitate to call them relationships, as there is no single relationship in this book that follows the safe, consensual methodology taught by BDSM. Buckle in folks, this is going to get weird.

First of all, we learn, in the first chapter of this book, that Lark is in a cock cage. Second, we learn that he and his boyfriend have been in chastity cages since their teens, along with other children. This implies that the cult has been encouraging fifteen-year-old kids to engage in BDSM relationships under the auspices of the cult leader. Next, because it’s a weird sex cult, the book includes multiple scenes of torture, rape, and sexual assault. The rape scene is from a voyeur’s point of view, and it truly toes the line between observing the abuse and making it into titillation. Last, and probably most baffling from my point of view, is that towards the end of the book we learn that the little potions the cult members have been carrying around in their shoulder holsters are not magic, but are actually seminal and vaginal fluids, collected by the cult leader, and given to the young members of her cult to drink.

This seems to happen out of the blue for no reason. There’s nothing explained, no plot that ties into this, nothing. It’s just dropped on us and never mentioned again.

And that’s the culminating issue and the root problem with FBA. All of these half baked engagements with worldbuilding leave us with a book that is weirdly senseless. It feels like it never resolves anything because there is nothing to resolve. While the book is obsessed with creating layers of mystery, the readers are just left confused, peering through the mixed-up ideas, trying to find a plot that cares about the characters, about resolving the magic, about sex without torture attached, about anything at all. Without engaging in the kind of care that these topics require, Szpara’s book becomes something without a spine, a meandering road west with no destination, no resolution, and worst of all, no self-awareness whatsoever.