Books Beyond Binaries Editorial Services
A little shameless self-promotion to start off this post, before I get to the good stuff!
As most of you know, as well as being a full time student, I am also a fledgling literary agent and a bookseller. I make most of my living in my student life, taking on freelance research projects, and I’ve usually had the comfort of a small but reliable paycheque from the bookshop where I work part time to fall back on. Unfortunately, because of COVID, both of these sources of income have all but disappeared from my life these days. As such, I’ve decided to start offering book doctor services to writers alongside my agenting career. I’m putting my experience of 3 years as a bookseller, nearly a decade in academic publishing, and my first year in traditional publishing to work with competitive rates to support writers at all stages of their careers. You can check out my Fiverr page here if you’re interested. While I am available for bigger contracts, I love offering thorough first pages critiques to strengthen longer projects and pitch packages.
Before I jump in to this week’s feature, I want to highlight an amazing event coming up TOMORROW for educators, supported by The Festival of Literary Diversity’s Kids Book Fest. Details for Decolonizing Education and the Role of Restorative Justice in Schools is a free webinar, and details can be found below. While you’re looking, registration opens on September 2nd for the Kids Book Fest being held in October that is not to be missed if you’re a supporter of diverse literature for young readers, a parent, an educator, or a young reader yourself!
Kit Mayquist’s Review of FIRST, BECOME ASHES, by K. M. Szpara
I cannot say enough how excited I am to host this review, written by up and coming #SpineSquad author, Kit Mayquist, who recently celebrated the sale of his debut novel, Tripping Arcadia, to Dutton, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
There is nothing I love more than trans stories being reviewed by trans readers. While Kit is just beginning a promising literary career of his own, K. M. Szpara made waves with his debut Docile, and his sophmore release First, Become Ashes is expected in April of 2021 and is available for pre-order now.
To readers of First, Become Ashes, Kit would also like to recommend one of my favourite haunted house books of all time, The Good House, by Tananarive Due. Tananarive Due is an epic horror author who I didn’t learn about until way too recently. If you’ve been sleeping on her work, definitely check it out. It will give you chills, no matter how hot this summer is getting.
There is magic in the world, though it depends on who you ask.
Being raised in a cult of Baltimore-based, monster-hunting wizards, the main character Lark is awaiting his 25th birthday where he will undertake his mission as one of The Anointed, and fulfill his oath to rid the corrupted world of monsters. When we begin, he is bidding his partner and lover Kane goodbye, watching him leave the guarded gates of Druid Hill and venture into the world to complete his own mission, but for Lark, this ending is the largest beginning he could imagine, as Kane betrays them and reports the Fellowship of the Anointed to the FBI, resulting in a sting operation and their arrest.
It is rare to find a story where two realities can exist simultaneously and still seem rooted in our own, present day. First, Become Ashes deals with many topics that readers will find familiar, topics such as growing up and discovering your own beliefs versus those you were raised in, and the rocky path of wrestling with belief when everyone seems to have a different opinion on it. Much like in Szpara’s debut novel, Docile, First Become Ashes is a story of a man discovering who he is in the world as he undergoes a deprogramming. In fact, for many readers of Docile, the themes in First, Become Ashes will seem very familiar. Our protagonist, Lark has an inner narrative and voice that is strong-headed and yet, gives the reader full insight into the unraveling (and lack thereof) of his beliefs and of his identity as he wrestles with what it means to exist beyond life as a chosen one for a cult that the world is all too happy to condemn. Much like how Docile followed Elisha as he lost sense of himself and struggled to regain it, our protagonist takes the reader on a journey full of bravado and surety, with his fingernails clinging so hard to his beliefs that he practically bleeds. His is a story of agreement with his cult’s beliefs and a resistance to the efforts of those around him to tell him otherwise. Along his journey Lark meets a cosplayer, Calvin and in him he finds companionship as well as another soul desperate to believe there is magic in the world.
From a meet-cute beside the dumpsters in cosplay (relatable for many of us, I’m sure), to unashamed enthusiasm for the 21st century nerd and fan culture (so many references, so many!), Calvin is just like any one of us. Eager to go on a quest, and above all else, eager to believe that the rumors about The Fellowship of the Anointed’s ability to wield magic is genuine. For Calvin, Lark’s presence in his life is a much awaited turning point, and a choice he makes to find out for once and for all if he can live the life of the characters he dresses up as, and possibly find love in the process. What he does not expect, is to go on a road trip with a bag of BDSM toys in the trunk, and to discover that for some, magic does not come from a loving, joyous space, but from something darker.
First Become Ashes comes with a warning of sadomasochism, and it is a warning well-deserved if that is not your thing. If it is your thing, you will be well rewarded. Much like in Docile, themes surrounding consent, and what it means for our protagonist, develop through a narrative that makes such lessons poetic and extremely grounded in the story’s plot and world-building. For Lark, there is no question magic is real, he feels it in his body, becoming weak when he is drained of it. It is a very real thing. It is also something that requires a partner to hurt him in order to produce, and it is a process his scar-marked body enjoys arguably more than any other member of The Fellowship.
As his bond with Lark develops, it is revealed Calvin is no stranger to BDSM and the world of kink, though Lark’s approach to it, and his relationship to a life where pain is a necessity and not something pleasurable, is concerning. This raises an internal debate throughout the book for Calvin and Lark’s Fellowship partner, Kane, about if Lark is even aware of his own kinks, and if he can come to understand his own enjoyment and embrace pleasure in his life aside from shoving down any positives for the sake of self-discipline. One final note on the BDSM link to magic and ritual in the book is that there are two major instances of sexual abuse and rape on the page as we learn about the actions of The Fellowship and their leader. Though not glorified, the scenes highlight the link between spiritual and sexual abuse in a way that may be extremely triggering for some readers, so please be advised.
However as serious as the themes discussed in First, Become Ashes are, it is not without humor. References to protein shakes as ‘potions’ and glow sticks from your classic convention rave being used as evidence of magic come with a nod and a wink that feels like that assignment I had once in Anthropology 101 to discuss current items as if they were being discovered 100 years from now. That being said, the humor serves a dual purpose in showing us just how isolated Lark and the other Fellowship member’s lives have been, and while some pick up the intricacies of modern day objects like hotel key cards and Google Maps with ease, for others, it is a reminder of just how much they’ve been denied, and a challenge to avoid a deep seeded fear of spiritual corruption.
It is no shock that the beliefs of First, Become Ashes feel so rooted and real, knowing that Szpara himself has a Theology degree. What was perhaps most refreshing to me was seeing a classic ‘Doomsday cult’ without the Christian lens. Instead the Fellowship reminded me most of my own childhood spent in metaphysical circles and having soul paintings done and being taught to bend spoons with my mind when all I wanted to do was play Pokémon. I think this is why for myself especially, the experiences of the various Fellowship members in the book feel truer to life than anything else. In First, Become Ashes we see all sides of the belief debate. The one who chose to leave, the one who was abused, the one who was never chosen, the shunned Preacher’s Kid, and the outsiders who want to believe, as well as those who hate them. Seemingly every perspective on The Fellowship and their actions is explored at least briefly, and readers are likewise taken on the journey of whether the magic is real or not, bouncing between proof for both sides, and unexplainable instances that will continuously leave you guessing yourself, just how much is fact or fiction.
Last though certainly not least, as a member of the LGBTQ2S+ community myself, First, Become Ashes is full of inclusive language and gender identities (one of the best things about The Fellowship is the normalized greeting of “What are your pronouns?” ) making it as comforting a read as it is a challenging one in terms of themes. Queerness is on the page in a celebratory way, as are discussions of polyamory and different types of love; something I’d personally like to see much more of from publishing. Ultimately First, Become Ashes is an excellent, well-awaited sophomore novel to Szpara’s Docile, while treading equally in familiar territory as well as new. Szpara’s ability to connect sex and identity to the plot in an inseparable way are what make his writing memorable long beyond the last page, and what make this novel shine.
Starred Rating: 5/5
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