In First Become Ashes, K.M. Szpara Makes Us Wonder if Magic is Real

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K.M. Szpara‘s debut Docile was one of the most binge-able, divisive reads of 2020. A near-future drama set in a world in debt crisis (imagine that), Docile explores the violence of capitalism at the most intimate of interpersonal levels, as we follow Elisha as he sells himself to trillionaire Alex in order to pay off his family’s debts. With Docile, Szpara, a queer and trans Baltimore-based author, proved himself willing to dive into some complex, culturally loaded subjects to tell a science fiction story that reflects some central yet ignored truths about our contemporary society. For me, a White reader, the ways in which Docile works outweigh it doesn’t (one major criticism: the book’s avoidance of addressing America’s real-life history of slavery), but this will be different for every reader.

In his second book, First, Becomes Ashes (out today!), Szpara is similarly ambitious in topic and theme. Ashes is a standalone novel that takes place in the aftermath of the destruction of a maybe-magical cult, following four different characters caught up in the messy repercussions of the FBI’s raiding of the Fellowship of the Anointed. Much of the novel’s early perspective comes from Lark, an almost 25-year-old who believes wholeheartedly in the teachings of cult leader Nova, and that he has been chosen to learn magic and martial arts in order to hunt the monsters that ravage the world outside the Fellowship gates. Like Docile, it’s a startlingly unique premise. Despite having four separate POV characters, Ashes is able to maintain a mystery around some of the fundamental truths of this world, leaving the reader to wonder if magic exists in this world or not.

Den of Geek: Where did the inspiration for the book that would become First, Become Ashes begin?

K.M. Szpara: The idea hit me like a comeback three hours too late! I’ve always been interested in cults and faith and belonging. As a speculative fiction author, I had to give it a fantasy twist. Magic is something many of us have wished for since childhood. What if it was real—and then what if we were told it wasn’t?  

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This book has several POV characters, but you very much begin with Lark’s POV. Can you talk about how you went about deciding who would be POV characters and how you came up with the pacing for expanding the perspective-scope of this story?

One of my favorite ways to create tension is to show how different people experience the same event(s). Ashes shows dissolution of a cult from four points of view. Two “privileged” members who are Anointed—one a believer and one a doubter. One member who is a Fellow, a regular layperson. One outsider who has dreamed of having the magic the Anointed claim. Each of these characters experienced life differently before and after the Fellowship’s dissolution and they’re all tied together in deeply personal emotional ways. The pacing really comes down to knowing how to choose each chapter’s POV. And for me, it’s which character will be most effected by an event. For example, Lark performs healing magic on himself in front of Calvin. Though Lark is the one being healed and performing magic, it’s Calvin who’s seeing magic up close for the first time. It’s Calvin who’s wanted magic his whole life and is inches from it. That’s what drives the story forward.

Something you do in both Docile and Ashes that I love is give us a POV character who is an outsider to a world the reader will most likely recognize and then offer Nacirema-esque observation from that protagonist-outsider. Is this something you do intentionally? Why are you interested in telling stories in this way?

I had not heard of Nacirema until this question, but I love this observation! For anyone else hearing this for the first time, a cursory Google tells me that the term Nacirema is “American” spelled backwards and is a term used in sociology and anthropology to show distance while studying people in the United States of America. (I’m not a social scientist—amateur Googler over here!) I use outsider characters in this way because I want readers to see how aspects of their lives mirror the characters’ lives, how our society mirrors these harmful fictional societies. It’s easy to read about a cult and think you would never be drawn in, but that happens to people like you and me—and there are aspects of the U.S. that are cultish but not named in that way. I want people to see how they have been drawn in, how hard it is to unlearn and escape that harm. Because sometimes it looks and feels like magic and that’s all you’ve ever wanted.

I love all of the fandom explanation and outsider observation in this book. Why did you want to have a fan character like Calvin as such a central part of this story, and how did you want to depict fandom more generally?

When I think about who would be deeply invested in magic being real, it’s people like me who grew up reading SFF, wishing I’d walk through a portal to another world—even though the stories that took place in them were full of danger. There was magic! I’ve joked with friends that if one of them texted to tell me a real wizard or vampire or werewolf was in their house, I would absolutely drop everything and go to them. I want to see! I want to lift the veil! That’s what Lilian does when her BFF Calvin texts that an Anointed member of the Fellowship is in their hotel room.

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But that doesn’t mean Calvin’s motivations are pure and good—nor are they malicious! Like fandom, he’s imperfect. He wants magic and monsters to be real so badly that he’s sometimes willing to hurt others in pursuit of his dreams. Though Calvin doesn’t represent fandom as a whole—what one person could?—I did want to show someone who’s helpful and harmful, family-friendly and sexy, successful and unfulfilled. Complicated, like most of us and our interests are!

A central tension of Ashes is the mystery of if Lark’s magic is real, which creates this experience as a reader of not totally understanding as you’re reading what genre the book itself even is—is it speculative fiction or is it something else? It was a really unique reading experience, and led me to wonder as I was reading if and why I cared about classifying it. What a cool use of the “unreliable” narrator! Can you talk about creating and sustaining this tension/mystery and what you wanted to do with it?

It was difficult! Whether magic appears successful depends on the chapter’s POV character and its place within the arc. Sometimes a spell’s result is instant and sometimes it’s implied. Often faith is the difference. In that way we’re all unreliable narrators—everyone is only telling their own truth as they see it, as they’ve been raised and taught to see it. I wanted to keep readers wondering, not just for the thrill of “is magic real?” but why they’re asking. Who do they believe—who do they want to believe? Does it matter who’s “right”? Why? Read and answer for yourself! Ashes is a fantasy novel… if you want it to be.

Were the in-universe discussion of preferred pronouns always part of this story and the culture of the Fellowship? 

Yes. Cults don’t exist because they seem unattractive and survivors often have at least some fond memories. I wanted to create a place that felt somewhat harmonious and fruitful, which included the ability to find and be yourself with full acceptance. Something I wish existed outside of my imaginary cult, as well!

Both Ashes and Docile depict experiences and topics that are very sensitive for many readers—i.e. abuse, rape, and sadomasochism—and that therefore most “mainstream” authors either shy away from completely or depict very superficially. Why are you interested in exploring these themes in your storytelling? What conclusions, if any, are you hoping for readers to come away with in relation to these themes specifically?

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Firstly, no authors are required to deal with such heavy topics. I choose to; they’re common experiences and I’m not interested in glossing over them. I want to show how rape and abuse and conditioning affect people both in the moment and long after. And the sadomasochism in Ashes is not a depiction of a healthy S&M experience, but that’s not to imply that S&M is inherently unhealthy—because it absolutely can be! And lots of real people experiment with and engage in various forms of BDSM, sometimes healthy, sometimes not. I’m not writing guidebooks or after-school specials. My goal is not to portray perfect relationships or characters taking all the right steps. It is to show emotional truths. To portray how complicated and messy people are and reality is when it comes to traumatic situations.

It’s interesting to me that you use 25 as the coming-of-age age in this story. Can you talk about why you made that decision?

Ages like eighteen and twenty-one only mean something because we have decided they do. The Fellowship doesn’t operate by our rules, so I chose twenty-five, which felt like a natural milestone as a quarter century. Additionally, I wanted those leaving the Fellowship on their quests to be young adults (not in the publishing category sense) who were old enough to consider themselves competent but not so old that they’d had a lot of time as an adult to reflect on their experiences. A lot is ingrained in children and teenagers and I personally spent a lot of my early twenties both learning more and new information about myself and the world, but also unlearning some of the harmful aspects I’d absorbed from my younger years. It’s a time when many are figuring out their place in the world as independent adults, for the first time, not unlike the Anointed going out on their quests.

Are there things you especially learned in the writing and publishing of Docile that inspired how you wrote and edited this story?

It was nice to edit a book having already done so once because the mystery was gone—but that didn’t make it any easier! Second books are their own brand of tricky—and I like to try new things with craft, to push myself, which is fun but also stressful. There is a feeling of both familiarity while writing a second book, and also fear that maybe you wrote that first book my accident somehow and will never be able to do it again. Luckily, I have an awesome team at Tordotcom Publishing and they saw me through it, again. 

First, Become Ashes is now available to buy wherever books are sold, including via Tor.com.

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Note: First, Become Ashes contains explicit sadomasochism and sexual content, as well as abuse and consent violations, including rape.

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