Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy (Little, Brown, and Co., 2019)
Reviewed by Maayan D’Antonio
17-year-old Ari Helix is a refugee who has no impulse control. So when she sets off alarms she shouldn’t have on Heritage, a spaceship that belongs to the tyrannical Mercer Company, she and her brother Kay escape from the ship and hide on Old Earth, now a desolate planet. But when Ari pulls Excalibur from a gnarled tree, she unknowingly sets into motion a new cycle of the King Arthur legend. A cycle she doesn’t know has anything to do with her.
Until Merlin shows up and Ari thinks he is hitting on her.
When Merlin wakes in his crystal cave he knows what he needs to do: Find Arthur. Train Arthur. And pee. But not in same order of course. All in the hopes of breaking the curse that has him aging backwards, as well as defeating the evil enchantress Morgana, and keeping the new King Arthur from dying—which would start the cycle again. Merlin thought it would be easy, but when he meets Ari, the 42nd incarnation of Arthur, he doesn’t expect her to be a girl, and so is resistant to the truth of who she really is. Or that she would find him so annoying, at first.
Ari is honest and brave to a fault, but she finds it hard to believe that she is King Arthur reincarnated. All she wants is to use her newfound powers to save her adoptive mothers from the clutches of Mercer and find a way back to Ketch—her home planet. But soon the spirit of King Arthur and Excalibur help her find the right path to achieve her goals, which happens to pass right through the evil Mercer corporation.
Ari, Merlin, and Kay, together with their racially-diverse queer and trans friends-turned-knights of the Round Table, set off on a whirlwind of a quest where they will have to defeat Morgana—who seeks to destroy Merlin and Arthur— and save Ari’s family and the whole of the galaxy from Mercer. But like all heroes Ari will have to make difficult choices and compromises if she wants to win and free the galaxy from the capitalistic tyranny that controls them all.
Capetta (The Brilliant Death, 2018) and McCarthy (Now a Major Motion Picture, 2018) have created a Young Adult-space opera that is not only enthralling in its retelling of Arthurian legend but is filled with a diverse cast of characters, from same gender couples, to gender fluid to asexual characters. The book does away with a typically dry futuristic imagination of the world, where the landscape is still littered with the phobias of today: racism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia, etc.
Capetta and McCarthy don’t just point out diversity in Once & Future (JIMMY Patterson, 2019), instead the book sets diversity as a given. The two have thought about how identities would be claimed in the future and ask whether the old labels matter in a place where people as a whole are oppressed by an all-consuming capitalist and totalitarian corporation that is seeking galactic domination. The answer is no, it does not matter, for in Once & Future you are either Mercer or the enemy of Mercer. Identity is not a plot point but the landscape in this quest to live unoppressed by a giant corporation.
The plot is well paced and holds surprising vaults that will literally make you curse out loud from surprise and betrayal, and still you will keep on reading. By the end you too will want to shout “All hail King Ari.”