Recent Read: First, Become Ashes
[TL;DR] First, Become Ashes is a faced-paced cult escape fantasy story. Caveat: this book contains extremely graphic scenes of rape and self-harm among other CWs.
I received a copy of this book from NetGalley and Tor.Com in exchange for an honest review.
Before we begin: I’m not covering nearly all of the content warnings required for this book; those at the front (at least at the time of reading the ARC) were far too vague. Here’s a list that seems fairly comprehensive to me. This review does not go into any details on potentially triggering subject matter.
I requested this book on NetGalley partially because the premise was fascinating to me (more on that in a second) and partially because I’d seen pretty strong reactions to it and that piqued my curiosity. I’d read A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara a few years ago and absolutely loved it, even though I agreed with much of the critique around the book (including the fact that it devolved into torture porn at certain sections). I figured that I could handle the content that needed warnings in this book; IMO, Ashes is much less graphic than that one was (though it’s also been six years, so grain of salt).
First, Become Ashes tells the story of a cult operating in a former zoo smack-dab in the middle of Baltimore. Certain members, called the Anointed, are told that they can use magic; when the are 25, they must leave the cult one day to go Outside to fight monsters threatening humanity. The key to magic? Pain. Lark expects to leave for his quest just a few weeks after the book begins; however, before he can do so, the FBI raids the facility and reality comes crashing down.
At its core, this book focuses on Lark trying to fulfill what he considered his life’s mission as he grapples with understanding that it’s not real. While Lark is our mainest character, the story flips between his perspective and those of other cult members and an “Outsider” who decides to help him. Through this journey, Szpara tries to examine truth and reality and overcoming trauma; there’s an initial question, too, about whether magic is real or whether it’s all a lie.
In the end, this book wasn’t one for me, even though it kept me reading at a quick clip. Ultimately, I think that’s because the story just… went in a different direction than what I as a reader was interested in. I wanted a stronger interrogation of reality and whether magic really exists; a more thorough exploration of how Lark & co. came to terms with reality & their trauma; a deeper understanding of how the cult operated in a major city for almost 25 years before the raid. The book also asks a lot of the reader in terms of suspending disbelief, including Agent Miller’s actions and characters’ motivations in general (I’m really not sure why Lillian exists at all, but that’s a discussion for another day).
Even so, I can also see how some might enjoy it. Overall, I recommend this book to readers who are intrigued by the premise and willing to fully trust the author and just strap in for the ride.*****
*****I’m of the belief that graphic scenes of abuse are unnecessary for most works of art (though I understand there’s a larger discussion to be had here); however, that doesn’t impact my rating. Still: all the caveats in the world around the content warnings. Please read them. You can skim over or skip many of the graphic scenes without losing anything of the plot, I think, so that’s definitely an option. It’s still his is definitely not a book for ‘everyone’/’anyone’.