“I’m hoping. I’m trusting. That’s not a lie. It’s a leap of faith.”
I’ve been chased my whole life. As a fugitive refugee in the territory controlled by the tyrannical Mercer corporation, I’ve always had to hide who I am. Until I found Excalibur.
Now I’m done hiding.
My name is Ari Helix. I have a magic sword, a cranky wizard, and a revolution to start.
When Ari 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 backward 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.
CW: underage drinking, violence, loss of a loved one, suicide, genocide, mention of rape, animal death, sex scenes
In a word, Once & Future is FUN. It’s, in a lot of ways, the space romp of my dreams: distinct planets, effortless inclusiveness, a big bad to square up against, and a spaceship held together on duct tape and prayers. Also, it looks at the current trajectory of capitalism and how unsustainable it is for anyone save the folks at the top of the food chain, so bonus points for interrogating that!
Basically, it actually takes a lot of things I like about Doctor Who (especially the RTD era), and applies them to the legend of King Arthur with a YA setting to cap it all off. It’s a romp, plain and simple, and I had fun reading it, which is always important! Absolutely hats off to Cori and Amy Rose for that.
Possibly one of my favorite things about this, of course, was the breezy, casual queerness of pretty much the entire cast. There’s an f/f rivals to lovers ship (MY FAVORITE), explicitly bisexual characters, a nonbinary character, a gay wizard (yeah, that’s Merlin, if you’re wondering), and an asexual character! Plus lots of casual background queerness and adult queer folks, which is so heartening to see. Hell, when Merlin at one point mentions homophobia as a thing he faced back in the past on Earth, none of the characters quite get what he’s trying to say because the concept is so outlandish to them.
In addition, there’s a lot of POC in the cast, too, which is great to see. Check out this official character poster from an interview with Cori and Amy Rose on VCFA’s website!
From left to right, the poster features Ari, Merlin, Gwen, Val, Kay, Lam, and Jordan, and this is just the main cast!
I do have to mention, though, that the ace rep in this did leave me a little disheartened. Jordan is asexual, and while asexuality is absolutely respected in the universe created in this book, she is yet another cool, logical ace whose entire life revolves around the one thing she’s really good at. She was, frankly, flat, and I’m getting tired of my only representation having the same flavor every single time.
I will admit that the rest of the characters could sometimes be flat too. As much as I love a good rivals to lovers romance, I couldn’t get wholeheartedly behind Ari and Gwen’s relationship. It just didn’t feel developed enough for me to get invested, in part because I think the ensemble cast was as a whole too flat. Ari and Merlin get the most attention, which is entirely fair, but it means their supporting cast kind of folds, especially when those two aren’t there to burn forward through the story. I wanted to care more about them, but too often, they felt like props.
Of course, perhaps there was a little too much forward motion, too. You never really get a chance to stop and breathe, what with all the planet hopping in O&F. It’s full speed ahead 98% of the time, and while that was fun, it also meant sacrificing some depth and pushing the pacing just a little too hard. There’s a moment about 2/3 the way through where you do slow down as Ari finally makes an emotional confrontation regarding her past, but it shouldn’t take that long to get a moment to catch your breath. Essentially, I think O&F tried to cram just a little too much into one book, both in terms of plot and characters.
To close, though, I actually should add another thing I think was handled extremely well. It seems almost cartoonish, the way the big bad was involved in walling off Ari’s planet and relentlessly pursuing her for having dared to escape the positions the rest of her people were trapped in, but we’re living in a time when immigration issues are at the forefront of our news cycle, and not often in a comforting way. Some of the bigger issues at hand in O&F are really not that far removed from reality as it stands, which makes it chilling to think “oh, this is cartoon super-villain stuff” until you remember what’s actually happening.
It’s this almost-reality that makes me really fond of O&F despite its flaws, because at the end of the day, this is a book about a girl poised to change the entire universe for the better. It’s a hard process and sometimes it hurts, but the overall tone is hopeful, because someone has seen the worst that’s out there, and the response is to reach for better, to hold people accountable for the wrongs they visit on one another, and to dismantle systems that prevent positive, cooperative change. What can I say? I’m a sucker for hopeful SFF. I want to be able to look forward and feel like it’s going to be okay, feel like someone has a plan that I’m ready to support. It’s hard to actually feel like that in real life right now, but even a bit of positive fiction is a good reminder that there’s still hope, and that change comes when people push towards it instead of waiting for it to wander by.
When the sequel comes out next year, I’m sure I’ll be buying it or requesting it through my local library. There’s enough about O&F that I had a blast with to keep me coming back, and frankly? I also won’t say no to hopeful SFF. That’s just where I’m at right now, and I don’t think that’s going to change.