I’ve been chased my whole life. As an illegal immigrant 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.
If you aren’t someone an evil capitalistic corporation wants dead for being the on-the-run refugee who ignited a galactic revolution with the help of a cranky wizard, a mythical sword and a group of knights…. are you really living?
So, what’s this book about?
When Ari, a refugee from an Arab-settled planet, draws Excalibur from a tree on Old Earth and an ancient cycle shudders to life, that was only the tinder. The spark comes when Ari is dubbed the 42nd incarnation of king Arthur by Merlin, the backwards-aging wizard whom the doom of endlessly reliving Arthur’s tragic story hung on like a shawl for centuries. Determination, like an electric shock, sears through Ari’s whole body and whatever hesitancy might have been in her is parched away when Ari is given hope of saving her mothers and overthrowing Mercer company, a tyrannical corporation with a checkered history of suppressing their crimes like an unpleasant rumor before it had a chance to be heard.
But Ari doesn’t stand a chance alone. She needs the collective strength of people who, like her, have borne too much and would risk no more, forget nothing and show no mercy. The cry of this revolution fits into the hollows of the dreams of her knights, and, together they embark on a whirlwind mission to bring peace to humankind…even if it came with danger and ended in doom.
Once & Future is a queer and inclusive adaptation of the Arthurian legend that turns over ideas about oppression, about classism and capitalism, and, most of all, about how none can hold a candle to the most infinitesimal spark of hope, all while on a high-stakes rollercoaster quest to save humanity…and that’s no mean feat. While the story of King Arthur is used as a basic premise, the authors craftily unweave the original tale, using threads of it to inspire different characters, only to subvert the whole with lost desert civilizations, spaceships and interdimensional travel. Once & Future also introduces a diverse mix of characters from different backgrounds and with differing sexual orientations, all frankly discussing their identities and futures (Ari is pansexual, is from an Arab-settled country and has two moms, Lamarack is black, disabled and identifies as gender-fluid, Merlin is basically a gay disaster, and there’s also a sapphic romance between Ari and her Gweneviere).
I liked how this book doesn’t shy away from the harsh economic realities of everyone’s lives. It doesn’t gloss over the fact that bad things happen and that it’s awfully hard work to fix them. Evil regimes come. People are held captive. Good people do nothing. Bad people demand everything and are given even more. However, I think by choosing to personify Mercer with an evil CEO, Once & Future misses a crucial point: You’re not fighting one person, you’re fighting an entire system. And it felt like a missed opportunity when we could have had a clearer look into the corruption of the institutions trying to smother Ari and her people.
But I think the core thread of my dissatisfaction with this book is that I’d been braced for a surge of wonder, and expecting it to be wrenching, but it just…wasn’t. There were an awful lot of other bits to quibble over, and my enjoyment of the story kept bobbing under their weight. For instance, there’s a sort of dichotomy in terms of pacing, one that I’m still uncertain how to feel about. On the one hand, things happen in flurries of action, which is very exciting and engaging in a soapy sort of way, but, on the other hand, revelations occur haphazardly, awkwardly delayed and then in a rush, in such a way that a number of high-stakes turns seem trite and arbitrary and characters are reduced to a single trait, their motivations wavering and switching in accordance with plot contrivance more than their own development. I really expected more from this book than a sequence of interesting, but overtly dramatic, situations. The price the book pays for this is a loss of emotional engagement on the reader’s part—I felt set apart from the characters’ emotions and that made it very difficult to care. Furthermore, I’m usually perfectly content with the easily-accessible writing some YA authors settle for but this one just didn’t work for me at all.
In the end, I just don’t have any strong feelings about this book, and, as a reader, that’s what I fear the most: the middle ground, the lukewarm, and reading while constantly having to chase off the loose-limbed lassitude that threatens to rise and overwhelm.
Overall, while Once & Future triumphs in term of inclusiveness and introduces a subversive and original premise, I thought it just didn’t quite commit to its potential.
ARC kindly provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.