Have you ever thought to yourself, “I like this story, but I wish it had more LGBTQ+ characters?” I know I have. Well, authors Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy have just the thing. Their new YA space opera Once & Future is one of the queerest books I’ve ever read, and I am so here for it.
Seventeen-year-old Ari is the only Ketchan outside the barricade erected around her home planet by the evil Mercer Company. After their mothers were imprisoned by Mercer, Ari and her older adoptive brother Kay went on the lam in their junky old spaceship. During a particularly difficult escape from Mercer’s minions, they crash on Old Earth where Ari yanks an old sword out of a knobbly tree. Instantly, Merlin awakes from his slumber in his crystal cave. Now a young teen—a curse has him aging backwards—Merlin seeks out his new charge and informs Ari she’s the 42nd incarnation of King Arthur. To break his curse and end the cycle Merlin must train the new Arthur and get her on the throne so she can “defeat the greatest evil in the world,” and “unite all of mankind,” er, humankind. Ari isn’t especially interested in playing her part, but Excalibur and King Arthur’s spirit nudge her in the right direction.
As Ari picks up a bride on a faux medieval planet and gathers her friends-turned-knights, they hatch a grand plan to take down Mercer once and for all. It won’t be easy, and with each battle Mercer seems to get stronger and more devious. Merlin’s magic can’t save her from Mercer’s cruelty, not when he keeps getting distracted by a very attractive knight. If Ari has any chance of not just surviving but winning, she will have to make choices and compromises she never thought possible.
I can’t tell you how many science fiction stories I’ve consumed over the years where, despite it being hundreds of years in the future, galactic society is still infested with the same ‘isms and ‘phobias we have today—racism, sexism, xenophobia, transphobia, etc. Even when the bigotry isn’t explicit, the exclusion is. Romances are typically cishet, characters are mostly white, women are usually limited to secondary positions to men, and on and on. For me, that speaks to a lack of creativity on the part of the author; they can imagine a universe of FTL drives and aliens and terraforming but their imagination crashes to a halt when it comes to diverse populations. As a reader who is not part of the majority, it’s difficult to constantly be left out of the narrative, to be told that your stories aren’t important, that you have no place in the future. Thankfully there are authors like Capetta and McCarthy to challenge the status quo.
Diversity in Once & Future is a given, an assumed state of being, rather than something to point out or tokenize. But it’s more than just diverse identities. Capetta and McCarthy thought about how identities might be claimed like in the future. Would future humans still be tied to past labels especially when the power dynamics have shifted? Would we retain the same systems of oppression when the reasons for creating and maintaining those systems no longer exist? Capetta and McCarthy don’t think so, and neither do I.
In their vision of the future, the oppression is an exaggerated form of capitalism with thick coat of totalitarianism. There are only Mercer, Mercer affiliates, and Mercer opponents. In a galactic society where everyone and everything is constantly moving between planets and colonies, country of origin skin color, sexual identity, and gender expression no longer carry any weight. Everyone is comfortable with expressing their multiple identities, therefore the concept of “marginalized” or “target group” has lost all meaning. There is no “majority” other than Mercer. It also means that identities aren’t plot points but simply facets of the characters. Ari doesn’t have to defend her love for another woman anymore than Lam has to justify not conforming to antiquated gender stereotypes. The characters in Once & Future get to exist with their identities. That doesn’t happen very often in fiction, whether adult or YA, so I relished every. single. moment.
I’m going to take a personal moment here and talk about the asexual character. I am asexual (and aromantic), and it’s a rare thing for me to find an ace character where their sexual identity isn’t a plot point or mistaken for a personality. Ace characters, especially those written by an allosexual (someone who experiences sexual attraction), often come off as cold or manipulative or as if they never experience arousal or a desire for sex. We aren’t emotionless automatons, and painting us all with the same broad strokes flattens out the variety and nuance under the ace umbrella.
Cori McCarthy, however, is demisexual, and the #ownvoices influence on the ace character is clear. At one point when Ari learns about the character’s sexuality, they turn it back on Ari. Usually ace characters are forced to explain their identity, but here the character points out that they weren’t keeping some dark secret, Ari just never asked. Even in this wonderfully diverse future, there are still people whose identities get ignored or overlooked. But Capetta and McCarthy framed it as Ari’s fault for assuming rather than the character for not outing themself. That gutted me. I move through the world as an ace person, but allosexuals almost always assume I’m like them. No one ever asks why I don’t date or flirt, they assume I’m in a dry spell or a private person or any of a million other excuses. I don’t want people to assume I’m allo. I want someone to pay attention and to put asexuality on the table as a valid option. I want people to ask.
In case it’s not clear, I absolutely adored Once & Future. It hooked me in as a mythology nerd, a sci-fi fan, and an ace person desperate for genuine and accurate representation. Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy pulled off something remarkable with Once & Future. They took a story that’s been retold a thousand times and created something fresh and new. You’ve never seen King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table like this. With the killer cliffhanger the novel ends on, I’m praying to whatever gods exist that we’ll get a sequel. But if this is all the Ari, Kay, Merlin, Val, Lam, Gwen, Jordan, and Morgana we get, well, it was a helluva ride.
Alex Brown is a high school librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.