Start: March 31, 2019
Finish: April 17, 2019
Synopsis: When Ari [Helix] crash-lands on Old Earth and pulls a magic sword from its ancient resting place, she is revealed to be the newest reincarnation of King Arthur. Then she meets Merlin, who has aged backwards over the centuries into a teenager, and together they must break the curse that keeps Arthur coming back. Their quest? Defeat the cruel, oppressive government and bring peace and equality to all humankind.
No pressure. [via Goodreads]
This book first showed up on my radar when I read this Autostraddle’s article. There are a lot of really great books on this list and I highly recommend you check out the full article. While perusing the included titles and synopses, I stopped when I first spotted this cover. It’s absolutely gorgeous and eye-catching! (The internet doesn’t do it justice. You need to see the cover in person!)
I’ll admit, I know very little about the Arthurian legend. Of course, I know some of the major players, like the king himself, Merlin and the magical sword Excalibur. And I own a copy of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, though I haven’t had a chance to read it. So I came to this novel as an Arthurian novice, not letting that discourage me from reading what I thought would be an exciting and well-crafted reimagining of an old legend.
The greatest strength of this story is its inclusivity. This is the biggest reason I decided to read Once & Future. It’s a queer reimagining of the King Arthur legend, placing characters in the spotlight who are traditionally overlooked in fantasy and science-fiction. Ari Helix, the 42nd incarnation of King Arthur, is a refugee and an orphan, who is eventually adopted by a queer couple. Her host of knights are made up of people with various sexualities and ethnicities and they’re affectionate with each other in both romantic and platonic ways. This book seeks to normalize many things that our current world either ignores or dismisses, while also poking fun of many of the harmful “-isms” some people still desperately cling to:
“Lam,” Merlin said, interrupting. “Oh! Lamarack! He’s an excellent knight.”
“Dude!” Kay said. “Lam is fluid. They.”
“Oh, apologies.” Merlin’s face blotched with red. “I, um, come from a society with a history of gender assumptions based on physical markers, aesthetics…et cetera.”
“Ew,” Ari said.
“That’s wicked sad,” Kay added.
Merlin, at least, looked deeply ashamed. “You’ve no idea.”
The representation isn’t perfect. One character is described as having a mixture of “Asian and European heritage,” which is such a broad and poor description of an entire continent of people. Additionally, I was bummed at the lack of diversity in terms of ages of the character. Every essential character was roughly in their late teens/early twenties and the older characters were either non-essential or the antagonists. Still, it’s a step in the right direction and I imagine many people will be happy to see parts of themselves reflected in this characters.
Writing the rest of this review was genuinely difficult. When I first started this section, I wanted to split my remaining points into different paragraphs touching on different issues, but I realize that a lot of these issues boiled down to one main point: pacing. This story moves quickly but not in a productive way. There are numerous times throughout the story where a problem is introduced, only to easily and neatly be resolved a few pages later, taking away any lingering tension in the story. For example, early in the story, we encounter a character, Lam, who is missing a hand. There is a sense of mystery built up around this because neither Lam nor Kay (Ari’s brother) wants to tell Ari (and by extension the readers) the events that led to Lam losing their hand. It was a way to potentially add tension to the story that, up until that point, had very little of it after the opening scene. Unfortunately, about 3-4 pages later, Ari and the readers are given the backstory and all of the tension is gone. This is a small, minor example. But there are other instances throughout the story where a problem is introduced and then solved with little effort on the part of the main character. I never felt any sense of danger or threat to the characters, making it hard for me to invest in the actual narrative.
The pacing also affected the overall tone of Once & Future. By the end, I wasn’t sure if I read the goofy adventures of teenagers thwarting the schemes of an evil mega-corporation ( à la Scooby-Doo) or if this was a serious and cautionary tale of the dangers of unrestrained capitalism and it’s many, many downsides. There were emotionally heavy scenes that were almost immediately followed by light-hearted fun, with little transition in between. I love stories that balance the dramatic and the humorous. And admittedly, it’s difficult finding that right mixture. There are funny scenes in here, but they came almost immediately after a more serious scene, which caused emotional whiplash. I was torn between smelling/laughing at a joke or frowning about the ills of this mega-corporation. It left me asking myself “If the characters aren’t taking their mission seriously, then why should I?”
The Sword In The Stars is the title of the sequel to Once & Future. I’m slightly intrigued by where the story will go (the ending, while it seemed to drag, did set up some interesting plot points). But, maybe I won’t rush out to buy it when it’s released. Once & Future was a decent book and I would recommend it to anyone interested in a different take on the King Arthur legend. The book’s diversity is certainly the heart of this story and that alone is reason enough to check it out!