I’ve developed a habit of deciding I’m going to love a book before I even pick it up--especially if it’s written by an author I follow on social media. I can’t help it. After seeing the years of buildup and hype from the authors and their friends, it’s difficult not to get a little starry-eyed when you finally see their book on the shelf.
Or, you know, giddy scream inside because you’re the bookseller who gets to gleefully shove aside other books to make room for this sparkly, gorgeous new book you’ve been salivating over.
The book in question is Once and Future, a queer, feminist, futuristic retelling of King Arthur. Readers, it made my little queer heart sing.
Once and Future, by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy, is the story of Ari, a teenaged girl who, upon stumbling upon a sword in a tree and promptly pulling it out, discovers that she is the 42nd reincarnation of King Arthur. She certainly didn’t ask for this—she and her brother are too busy being on the run from Mercer, the evil corporation that runs the galaxy. But when she pulls Excalibur free, the cycle of King Arthur resets, and Merlin the wizard awakens as a grumpy teenager, compelled to find his new King Arthur to put a stop to the cycle once and for all.
Once and Future takes place in a distant future where humanity has used up Earth’s resources and now resides in far-off planets and space vessels. It’s a fabulous reworking of the old story in a new setting, with stakes that are just as epic, with some fantastic commentary on the ruthlessness of unchecked capitalism, xenophobia, and power imbalances.
The story takes place in a future where sexuality isn’t questioned—and Merlin gets poked fun at several times as he learns how to navigate this super queer-friendly world. Capetta and McCarthy effortlessly include bisexual, queer, asexual, gay, and nonbinary representation and characters of color. What I found so beautiful about this book is that while these characters’ identities do inform who they are and how they engage with the world, the plot doesn’t hinge on any characters struggling to come to terms with their identities.
The character writing is hands-down my favorite part of the book. I was grinning and cackling on pretty much every page. Merlin is an absolute treasure, and his internal monologuing is as hilarious as you’d expect of an old man who wakes up as a teenager. While he offers great comic relief, Merlin’s character runs surprisingly deep. There’s a lonely, self-preserving part of him that has, in cycles past, compelled him to protect himself and hold himself slightly apart from his other Arthurs and their knights. It’s hard to blame him—Merlin is probably hundreds of years old, and his existence has comprised of setting young boys on missions to save the world from greater evil, and he hasn’t succeeded even once. He has watched the tragedy of King Arthur’s story unfold 41 times already, and if he fails this time around, he may wake up too young to be of any use.
And, of course, there’s Ari. She’s everything you’d hope for in a reincarnation of King Arthur—full of spitfire, determination, honor, and she’s a champion for justice and truth. An immigrant and refugee, Ari was found abandoned in a wrecked spaceship near her home planet by her adopted brother Kay and his two moms, with no memory of what happened to her or her family. She does know that she comes from the planet Ketch, which was sealed off by Mercer. Ari desperately wants to return, but trying to do so cost her adoptive moms their freedom, and with her newfound power, Ari hopes to rescue them and return to Ketch. Ari is impulsive, and her tendency to rush headlong into danger is something she grapples with as she slowly comes to accept her greater destiny.
Once and Future is fast-paced, full of tension, and has delightful romantic subplots. Ari collects old and new friends alike, growing her retinue of knights, including Gweneviere, who has become queen of the planet Lionel. Ari and Gwen turn out to be old flames, with a complicated backstory and a wonderful push-and-pull between them as they try to navigate their feelings for each other. Merlin has a romance sub-plot too, and while I expected it to be a little bit cringe-y, considering the age differences, I actually found it to be super cute and navigated quite well.
There’s a lot more that I could say about this book, but I think the most important note I want to leave on is this: Once and Future is a book that would have helped me so much if I’d been able to read it as a teen, when I was grappling with my own identity. It’s a book that’s a wild, fun adventure where characters’ identities are never questioned, and characters are held accountable for their wrongful assumptions and actions. It’s a story about a group of queer kids who are strong, powerful, funny, and full of love, who are willing to do whatever it takes to bring justice to those who suffer. I am so, so happy to know that this book is going to find its way into the hands of readers who need to see themselves represented on the page.
You can buy Once and Future at Barnes and Noble for $13.56.
Writer, reviewer, bookseller, book nerd extraordinaire. Fiction reader at Waxwing Magazine.