This book is going to be beloved by some readers–just not me. Two stars for an erratic, half-baked sci-fi adventure.

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.

No pressure.

This one hurt, friends. This was one of my most anticipated releases of the month and I bumped it to the top of my TBR as soon as I got my hands on the audiobook. This was a let-down for the record books.

The headline on this title is the LGBTQ+ rep. The pitch is “queer, gender-bent King Arthur in space” and that’s what you get. We have identified-by-name gay and pan characters, on-page they/them pronoun use, and gender-bent love triangles aplenty. I know many readers were excited for the book for this reason, and it delivers on that promise. I’m confident that the book will find a happy home among many readers starving for better rep.

Unfortunately, that’s the only feature the book really has to recommend it. Diversity and representation, while important, have nothing to do with quality. A book can draw you in with an interesting setting or unique hook but not have the story to back it up–and the same thing can happen when a book is sold to readers on the strength of diverse characters alone.

Once & Future is a love letter to the kids who wrote queer fanfiction of Merlin (which I mean in the best way)

The rep is commendable and needed, yes–but diversity can’t substitute for good writing.

If I stumbled across Once & Future on AO3 or another fanfiction site, I’d probably get a more positive impression. A wildly creative premise executed with love is enough to make an enjoyable fanfic. When chapters are posted as they’re written with weeks in between, it’s understandable that pacing will be unpredictable and tone will shift.

However, Once & Future is a complete novel, so it’s strange that it feels like it’s never been read through beginning to end. The pacing is jarringly uneven, ricocheting from rushed fight scenes to drawn-out, unrpoductive internal monologues from chapter to chapter. The humor (which I never found actually funny) feels out-of-place, as though it was added in the second draft to lighten the dour tone.

By the end, I was just frustrated. Instead of riffing on the Arthurian legend and finding new spins, Capetta and McCarthy seemed to be fighting against the framework they chose. They drag the story through the obligatory beats without bothering to flesh out characters or add depth to the world. And why wold they bother–we already know what’s going to happen.

That said, even though I don’t think this is a good book, I am glad it exists. It’s a great sign that books with diverse characters or from marginalized authors are beginning to get the chance to branch out this way. I want to have a publishing world where goofy sci-fi LGBT retellings happen every year. I hope publishers continue to give writers a chance to start throwing diverse, creative ideas at the wall to see what sticks. They won’t all be gold, and that’s okay. They make our shelves better.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: ONCE & FUTURE by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy”

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