K.M. Szpara has such a deep relationship with his characters, and it shows wonderfully through his writing. Last year I read Docile, and came away from it a big fan. It very much put Szpara on my radar, and I looked forward to more of his work. There was just a strong sense of how people can change, by accident, into less-than-human versions of themselves. So when it was announced he had another novel coming called First, Become Ashes, I decided I was going to read it, regardless of the description. The question is, does First, Become Ashes live up to the standard set by Docile?.
The story follows Lark, a boy raised within the Fellowship, a secret society headquartered within an abandoned zoo in Baltimore. Lark and his partner Kane were raised to rid the world of monsters using the magic they’ve honed over the years. Kane, the first to approach the age of twenty-five, leaves the compound for his mission and returns with the FBI to free the younger members from the abuse by their elders. Lark, along with other members of the Fellowship, is seized by the FBI and brought in for questioning. Lark, angry and despairing over the betrayal of Kane, escapes to continue his mission. He doesn’t know where he is going, but he knows he must slay monsters. Whether they are real anymore, Lark has no idea, but he’s going to find out for himself.
I have a lot of mixed feelings about this book, and they haven’t been easy to sift through. Usually, I can point to a specific portion of the book that has me questioning it, but Ashes just has me running in circles. Where I’ve landed, though, is I just didn’t connect with this book nearly as much as I did with Docile. The two characters mentioned in the synopsis were easily the most compelling, but they shimmered less and less as the story continued. Lark served well as an unreliable narrator, but after a certain point, the magic in his life no longer pulled me forward. Lark is written well enough, but his quest was so vague it didn’t interest me. I understand that at some level the Fellowship had to be vague in their ways, but it undercut his determination in a big way. Plus, he didn’t really do anything questionable that would make his unreliability interesting or empathetic. Kane had far less screen time, and his sections were easily the more revealing of the cult’s nature. His sections are where the content warnings come most in handy, and while they were mysterious, they didn’t reveal much about who he was, and who Lark was to him. They weren’t boring, but they hit me in the way a true crime documentary would. It was tragic, but I felt more like an outsider looking in and not really feeling Kane’s role within the story. It turned Kane into a plot device and minimized his role as a human.
That leads me to Calvin. Calvin was probably one of the most grating characters I have read in a long time. I think it speaks to Szpara’s writing ability that this character felt so distinctly unmoored from reality to me, yet I felt it necessary to read his sections. Part of the problem is that Calvin just appears out of nowhere, with a completely different tone – bubbly and unaware – while also lamenting that the people in his life just didn’t understand him. He’s a major portion of the page count and he just really pulled me out of the story. He spends most of his time admiring Lark, learning about the Fellowship and hoping to see magic. I know I started off on the wrong foot with him, but even over time I just did not buy into his deal. His relationship with Lark was even less compelling, and it just made me sad (but not the good kind).
The plot is fine. There is not a whole lot of tension as more and more of Lark’s and Kane’s lives are revealed to the reader. Lark’s quest is just sort of there, never really materializing even in a personal way. I liked Szpara’s knack for ambiguity concerning the magic, monsters and questing, but it didn’t feel like it became cohesive enough to have meaning. The plot does its job in allowing the characters to show themselves, and that was enough for me, I was here for the characterization. And if you’re looking for sex scenes, they weren’t nearly as spicy or character oriented as they were in Docile. Honestly, that’s fine. If you’ve read Docile, Szpara does not shy away from rape, and it’s no different here. I’m not against its portrayal as a general rule, and can stomach it’s inclusion, but it felt off in Ashes. There was a spectator quality to the scenes, and they felt removed from the rest of the book. It comes off as something to witness, in order to create tragedy, whereas in Docile it was an exploration of character, domination and masking oneself. There were some sweeter, more intimate sex scenes in the book, but they too felt less character driven and more just a nice thing. Again it’s okay in my book, I just expected more.
I think First, Become Ashes is a book for someone out there, but maybe I’m still under the influence of Docile. Some of the strengths of the last book were still noticeable, just on a lower burn. Szpara is a good, if not great writer, and I still look forward to his work in the future. Ultimately, Ashes just wasn’t my cup of tea, and did not engage me in any meaningful sense.