FIRST, BECOME ASHES

A timely tale about the dangers of committing too fervently and unquestioningly to a person and their cause.

Magic or not? Abuse or necessary preparation for a sacred warrior? Szpara tackles tough questions of perception and consent in this disturbing, occasionally hallucinatory tale of the destruction of a cult.

Meadowlark is Anointed, chosen by Nova to learn both magic and martial skills to fight the monsters that overrun the world outside the warded gates of the Fellowship of the Anointed’s compound in Druid Hill, a former public park in the heart of Baltimore. His beloved partner, Kane, has already turned 25 and has been sent out on a quest against the monsters. But two months before Lark’s own 25th birthday, the Forces of Evil strike first: The FBI and the police invade the compound and take Lark away, calling the Fellowship a dangerous cult and demanding that Lark testify against Nova. Worse still, Kane is the one who betrayed the compound. Aided by other captured Anointed, Lark employs magic to escape government custody. With FBI Agent Miller, Kane, and Lark’s sibling Deryn in pursuit, Lark embarks on his quest, resolving to destroy the monster who has clearly corrupted Kane. He finds unexpected help from Calvin, a professional cosplayer who sees Lark as a fantasy hero made real—an impossibly beautiful and painfully attractive man who claims to wield magic—and Calvin’s podcaster friend, Lilian, who’s there for the novelty and to support Calvin. During the journey, we learn more about the physical and sexual abuse that Kane and Lark experienced as part of their training. This novel exists in the same intriguingly inchoate territory as Russell H. Greenan’s It Happened in Boston? and Richard Matheson’s Somewhere in Time, leaving it up to the reader to decide if the curious events that occur are the product of magic, delusion, or some murky place that draws from both possibilities. Frankly, the most implausible aspect of the story is the extreme latitude granted to Agent Miller, who should never have been in charge of the Druid Hill case given her very personal connection to the cult. Other aspects of the story seem more sadly believable: Recent documentaries about NXIVM underscore the power of a charismatic leader to convince or coerce their flock into suffering horrendous and humiliating treatment while they desperately try to convince themselves that it makes them stronger or, at least, that it is deserved. But this story ultimately offers balm; whether or not magic is real, the energies which apparently drive it can be channeled in more positive directions, toward hope and healing.

A timely tale about the dangers of committing too fervently and unquestioningly to a person and their cause.

Pub Date: April 6, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-250-21618-2

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Tor

Review Posted Online: Jan. 26, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2021

FOURTH WING

From the Empyrean series , Vol. 1

Read this for the action-packed plot, not character development or worldbuilding.

On the orders of her mother, a woman goes to dragon-riding school.

Even though her mother is a general in Navarre’s army, 20-year-old Violet Sorrengail was raised by her father to follow his path as a scribe. After his death, though, Violet's mother shocks her by forcing her to enter the elite and deadly dragon rider academy at Basgiath War College. Most students die at the War College: during training sessions, at the hands of their classmates, or by the very dragons they hope to one day be paired with. From Day One, Violet is targeted by her classmates, some because they hate her mother, others because they think she’s too physically frail to succeed. She must survive a daily gauntlet of physical challenges and the deadly attacks of classmates, which she does with the help of secret knowledge handed down by her two older siblings, who'd been students there before her. Violet is at the mercy of the plot rather than being in charge of it, hurtling through one obstacle after another. As a result, the story is action-packed and fast-paced, but Violet is a strange mix of pure competence and total passivity, always managing to come out on the winning side. The book is categorized as romantasy, with Violet pulled between the comforting love she feels from her childhood best friend, Dain Aetos, and the incendiary attraction she feels for family enemy Xaden Riorson. However, the way Dain constantly undermines Violet's abilities and his lack of character development make this an unconvincing storyline. The plots and subplots aren’t well-integrated, with the first half purely focused on Violet’s training, followed by a brief detour for romance, and then a final focus on outside threats.

Read this for the action-packed plot, not character development or worldbuilding.

Pub Date: May 2, 2023

ISBN: 9781649374042

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Red Tower

Review Posted Online: Jan. 12, 2024

IRON FLAME

From the Empyrean series , Vol. 2

Unrelenting, and not in a good way.

A young Navarrian woman faces even greater challenges in her second year at dragon-riding school.

Violet Sorrengail did all the normal things one would do as a first-year student at Basgiath War College: made new friends, fell in love, and survived multiple assassination attempts. She was also the first rider to ever bond with two dragons: Tairn, a powerful black dragon with a distinguished battle history, and Andarna, a baby dragon too young to carry a rider. At the end of Fourth Wing (2023), Violet and her lover, Xaden Riorson, discovered that Navarre is under attack from wyvern, evil two-legged dragons, and venin, soulless monsters that harvest energy from the ground. Navarrians had always been told that these were monsters of legend and myth, not real creatures dangerously close to breaking through Navarre’s wards and attacking civilian populations. In this overly long sequel, Violet, Xaden, and their dragons are determined to find a way to protect Navarre, despite the fact that the army and government hid the truth about these creatures. Due to the machinations of several traitorous instructors at Basgiath, Xaden and Violet are separated for most of the book—he’s stationed at a distant outpost, leaving her to handle the treacherous, cutthroat world of the war college on her own. Violet is repeatedly threatened by her new vice commandant, a brutal man who wants to silence her. Although Violet and her dragons continue to model extreme bravery, the novel feels repetitive and more than a little sloppy, leaving obvious questions about the world unanswered. The book is full of action and just as full of plot holes, including scenes that are illogical or disconnected from the main narrative. Secondary characters are ignored until a scene requires them to assist Violet or to be killed in the endless violence that plagues their school.

Unrelenting, and not in a good way.

Pub Date: Nov. 7, 2023

ISBN: 9781649374172

Page Count: 640

Publisher: Red Tower

Review Posted Online: Jan. 20, 2024

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