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

FIRST, BECOME ASHES

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. 27, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2021

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A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

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DEVOLUTION

Are we not men? We are—well, ask Bigfoot, as Brooks does in this delightful yarn, following on his bestseller World War Z (2006).

A zombie apocalypse is one thing. A volcanic eruption is quite another, for, as the journalist who does a framing voice-over narration for Brooks’ latest puts it, when Mount Rainier popped its cork, “it was the psychological aspect, the hyperbole-fueled hysteria that had ended up killing the most people.” Maybe, but the sasquatches whom the volcano displaced contributed to the statistics, too, if only out of self-defense. Brooks places the epicenter of the Bigfoot war in a high-tech hideaway populated by the kind of people you might find in a Jurassic Park franchise: the schmo who doesn’t know how to do much of anything but tries anyway, the well-intentioned bleeding heart, the know-it-all intellectual who turns out to know the wrong things, the immigrant with a tough backstory and an instinct for survival. Indeed, the novel does double duty as a survival manual, packed full of good advice—for instance, try not to get wounded, for “injury turns you from a giver to a taker. Taking up our resources, our time to care for you.” Brooks presents a case for making room for Bigfoot in the world while peppering his narrative with timely social criticism about bad behavior on the human side of the conflict: The explosion of Rainier might have been better forecast had the president not slashed the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey, leading to “immediate suspension of the National Volcano Early Warning System,” and there’s always someone around looking to monetize the natural disaster and the sasquatch-y onslaught that follows. Brooks is a pro at building suspense even if it plays out in some rather spectacularly yucky episodes, one involving a short spear that takes its name from “the sucking sound of pulling it out of the dead man’s heart and lungs.” Grossness aside, it puts you right there on the scene.

A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

Pub Date: June 16, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-2678-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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A blackhearted but wayward yarn.

LAPVONA

A peasant boy gets an introduction to civilization, such as it is.

Moshfegh’s gloomy fifth novel is set in the medieval village of Lapvona, ruled by Villiam, who’s paranoid and cruel when he’s not inept. (For instance, he sends murderous bandits into town if he hears of dissent among the farmers.) Marek, a 13-year-old boy, is becoming increasingly curious about his brutish provenance. He questions whether his mother indeed died in childbirth, as his father, Jude, insists. (The truth is more complicated, of course.) He struggles to reconcile the disease and death he witnesses with the stories of a forgiving God he was raised with. His sole source of comfort is Ina, the village wet nurse. During the course of the year tracked by the novel, Marek finds his way to Villiam, who fills his time with farcical and occasionally grotesque behavior. Villiam’s right-hand man, the village priest, is comically ignorant about Scripture, and Villiam compels Marek and a woman assistant into some scatological antics. The fact that another assistant is named Clod gives a sense of the intellectual atmosphere. Which is to say that the novel is constructed from familiar Moshfegh-ian stuff: dissolute characters, a willful rejection of social norms, the occasional gross-out. At her best, she’s worked that material into stark, brilliant character studies (Eileen, 2015) or contemporary satires (My Year of Rest and Relaxation, 2018). Here, though, the tone feels stiff and the story meanders. The Middle Ages provide a promising setting for her—she describes a social milieu that’s only clumsily established hierarchies, religion, and an economy, and she wants us to question whether we’ve evolved much beyond it. But the assortment of dim characters and perverse delusions does little more than repetitively expose the brutality of (as Villiam puts it) “this stupid life.”

A blackhearted but wayward yarn.

Pub Date: June 21, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-30026-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: March 30, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2022

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