SERIES REVIEW: Once & Future duology by A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy
I’ve finally finished Sword in the Stars, so I thought I’d share my thoughts on the two books in the Once & Future duology. I’ve already discussed Once & Future over on my Booktube channel, so make sure to check that out as well if you haven’t already!
Before we start, I’d like to say a huge thank you to Rock the Boat, for accepting my request to read and review both books in the Once & Future duology via NetGalley.
The Once & Future duology follows a girl called Ari, who discovers she’s the 42nd reincarnation of King Arthur. Arthur has been caught in a seemingly endless cycle. His soul gets reborn, he discovers Excalibur and frees the sword from the stone, and then he gets tracked down by a Merlin who is growing rapidly and inexplicably younger. When Merlin tracks down Ari he thinks the universe is playing a joke on him. How can his Arthur have been reincarnated as a woman? But Merlin learns not to underestimate Ari when she becomes determined to break the cycle, saving her people from an evil corporation called Mercer and freeing Merlin from his impending childhood.
Along the way, Merlin and Ari find themselves gathering friends who correspond with other key players in the Arthurian legend. Ari’s friend Lam is easily identifiable as Lamarack, while their brother Val is Percival. Merlin’s relief at Ari avoiding Arthur’s legendary heartbreak is short-lived when she reconnects with old flame Gwen, but it comes as no surprise when their love story doesn’t progress smoothly.
Once & Future pleasantly surprised me. My relationship with Arthurian retellings is a fraught one; I’ve despised some of the Arthurian retellings I’ve read, while Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn became a new favourite earlier in the year. Blending medieval elements with a sci-fi setting could have been a disaster, but I enjoyed the first novel in this series a lot. The cast of characters had a lot to do with my enjoyment of the novel. It’s a diverse cast, featuring asexual, pansexual, gay, genderfluid and trans rep, as well as a demiguy (and that’s just the rep I can remember off of the top of my head!). All of the characters were well-crafted, and even though it was a big cast of characters they all felt necessary.
I was disappointed by the bad guy, as the Mercer Administrator doesn’t get much time on the page. The idea of the faceless corporation was more intimidating, but giving the company a leader and making him bland lowered the stakes in this story dramatically.
I will admit that I found it difficult to get into the story at the start. During the first few chapters we follow Ari before she discovers Excalibur, which means there’s no Merlin and no dual perspective. These chapters are the slowest in the entire book, and it takes a while to get the plot moving. I was tempted to DNF the book during this section, but I’m glad that I pushed through it because it really paid off. If you’re looking to read a novel which is fast-paced straight out of the gate, don’t reach for this one just yet!
My favourite section of Once & Future occurs about halfway through the story, when Ari is separated from her friends and they believe that she’s dead. I loved the exploration of grief and the way that different people respond to loss in different ways, and I thought Capetta and McCarthy did a great job of delving into the subject (albeit briefly).
I also really appreciated the conversation between the gang and Merlin when he misgenders Lam. Lam identifies as fluid and uses they/them pronouns, but Merlin explains that he’s used to presuming people’s pronouns based off of the way that they look. The gang correct him, but they forgive him for his mistake and Merlin does his best to prioritise using correct pronouns throughout the rest of the series. It’s a simple conversation to be had, but when so many people still don’t understand terms like genderfluid or non-binary, a small conversation like this can go a long way towards fostering acceptance and understanding.
Having given Once & Future four stars, I was excited to continue the series and see how it all wrapped up in Sword in the Stars. There will be spoilers for events which occur towards the end of book one, so look away now if you haven’t finished the first installment yet!
At the end of Once & Future, Ari and the gang have to make the decision to travel through time to the first Arthurian cycle, back in the days of Camelot. Merlin is still growing rapidly younger, Gwen is pregnant, and Ari’s brother Kay is dead (along with the Mercer Administrator, who has already been replaced).
I was hoping that Sword in the Stars wouldn’t spend too long back in Camelot, but unfortunately they remain there for around half of the book. This slows the pacing down dramatically. It also rips away everything I loved about the first book, because instead of flying around space and exploring the universe – key elements in any sci-fi novel – the book turns into a traditional fantasy, with horseback riding, swordfights and knights galore. I wouldn’t have minded this if I’d been expecting it, but the reason I picked up Once & Future in the first place was because I wanted to read an unconventional Arthurian retelling. Instead, Sword in the Stars gives us a gender swapped Lancelot and a whole load of timeywimey nonsense.
This book thinks it’s smarter than it is. There are lots of concerns about the events of the past changing the events in the future, but even cautious Merlin throws out all of his worries and decides to buddy up with his Old Merlin self in the attempt to fix his backward aging. The justification for all of this is that the gang brought a book of MercersNotes (basically CliffsNotes) about the Arthurian legends back in time with them, so they know they’ve gone wrong if pages start disappearing from the book, giving them ample opportunity to quickly correct the course of the timeline. While I liked that idea, I’m not sure if it would be a foolproof way of ensuring nothing changed, and it hurts my head to think about the implications.
I had some wild and wacky theories about the direction that the second book could take, and basically all of them came true. However, a lot of them were so farfetched that they were barely foreshadowed in the first novel. Contrasting the mystery of the first book with the extremely heavy-handed foreshadowing at the beginning of this installment, a lot of the intrigue about what’s going to happen later in the story is taken away.
My main gripe with Sword in the Stars is that it feels preachy. While Once & Future was diverse and inclusive it didn’t make it too much of a focal point because humanity had progressed enough to be accepting of a variety of sexualities and gender identities, but the return to Camelot makes Capetta and McCarthy really hammer home how dramatically humanity has shifted towards an inclusive mindset. Lam makes the first GSA as evidence that there were queer folk back in medieval times but they weren’t able to be out. While I have no doubts that this was true, surely Lam creating that GSA would change the society into being more open and inclusive, changing history – and therefore the future – in a pretty dramatic way?
The problem is, the people who need to read these statements aren’t the people who will be reading the second novel in an extremely diverse series. If these conversations had been had in the first book – along with the discussion about Lam’s pronouns – they might have had a huge impact, but the people who would benefit from reading discussions like these aren’t likely to pick up the second book in the series if they already had issues with the diversity and representation in the first.
Along with this complaint, there are some smaller issues which also hampered my enjoyment of this story. Ari makes a huge deal about not presuming people’s pronouns, but she does the same thing to a character in Camelot when she sees that they aren’t wearing a dress. Yes, they end up confirming that they identify as trans, but using they/them pronouns until that conversation would have felt more natural to Ari’s character.
There’s also a conversation between Ari and Gwen which left a very bitter taste in my mouth, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it throughout the second half of the novel. Gwen keeps referring to her baby as a girl because she doesn’t want to be responsible for giving birth to the legendary Mordred, who famously kills his father, Arthur. When the baby is born with male genitalia, Gwen muses that the baby might still end up being trans or fluid. I have a huge problem with gender reveal parties because I think the obsession with a child’s gender becomes more important than the fact that they’re healthy.
I can understand the context behind the comment, because if the child does end up being Mordred Gwen becomes directly responsible for both Arthur’s downfall and the start of the cycle that they’ve all been dragged into. However, the fact that this discussion occurs when the baby is less than a couple of hours old – having just been born in a lake in medieval times with no kind of midwives or healthcare personnel around – you’d think Gwen would be more interested in the baby’s health and wellbeing, rather than the possibility of them changing their gender identity later in life. It’s only a small moment, but it really destroyed my enjoyment of the book, and I lost a lot of respect for Gwen’s character because of this comment. Up until that point, she had been my favourite!
In all honesty, I should have DNFed Sword in the Stars. Yes, I struggled to read the first half of Once & Future, but once I got into the flow of the story it was a joy to read and I found myself looking forward to picking it up and re-immersing myself in this world and these characters. However, Sword in the Stars was a chore from beginning to end. It might have been worth the struggle if I’d liked the way the story ended, but it all seemed too convenient.
I ended up giving Sword in the Stars two stars, because I loved this cast of characters and when they finally got back into their time the story did get marginally more satisfactory, but unfortunately this wasn’t the five star I’d been hoping for.
All in all, the Once & Future duology has a stunning first installment, but things fall apart in the second book. I wonder whether this would have been better if the two books had been combined to make one long story, as it might have forced Capetta and McCarthy to cut down some of the slower sections and maintain the quick pace which I enjoyed throughout the first book.
I’ve read one of Cory McCarthy’s novels before – You Were Here – and it was a five star read for me, so I will consider reading more of their work in the future, but I’m starting to think Arthurian retellings just aren’t for me.
Thank you for reading this review. If you’ve read the Once & Future duology and would like to share your thoughts on it, feel free to leave them down in the comments!
See you soon,