Welcome back to 30 Days of Pride. Shon @ Books and Bugs is here to talk about a book that I really need to get to reading—and may have been pushed up on my TBR after reading this!—the 2019 King Arthur retelling, Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy. Keeping reading to see why you also need to read this book!
Between the pages of a book, we can do innumerable things that go beyond the scope of our realities, be it fighting dragons, saving the world, or being a morning person. These stories can act as a bit of an escape from the real world – a reprieve from the frightening things going on or feeling like you just don’t belong.
Not only is it great to have these fantastic worlds we can escape to, but it’s nice to see yourself in characters as well. I know it makes me feel more connected with the story and I can’t be the only one who likes seeing themselves given the sheer number of book-loving characters we see across all genres. Growing up, nothing made me feel more seen than Tamora Pierce’s books about lady knights. I was a bit of a tomboy and loved knight stories but as a girl, I rarely saw myself as any of the protagonists. A love interest here or there, but female knights were few and far between. As a girl who was pretty active in martial arts, Pierce’s ladies with swords kicking butt was some A+ content.
Angry women with swords are fine and dandy and all – great actually. I still thrive on it, but you know what else is great? LGBTQ+ representation. Across all platforms of media. I know that I’m likely preaching to the choir on this subject but queer representation is few and far between, and while things are getting better (omg a lot better?), I feel that we typically see it in one of a few limited ways: as a huge plot point of the story be it either as a love story or a coming out story, or as a point of contention.
While both of these are very legit forms of queer representation, what I truly want is content that normalizes queerness. I remember the first book I read that had normalized queer representation (Reign of the Fallen in case anyone’s wondering). I was touched. Deeply. Like, couldn’t believe my eyes. I kept waiting for it to be a source of tension later on but it was just casually thrown out there. And I loved it. The protagonist was bisexual and that was it. There was no discussion on how acceptable this was or wasn’t in their society. There was no mention of how people would look the other way and pretend they didn’t see them. It just was.
Part of the appeal of fantasy is the ability to escape reality and lose yourself in a world that isn’t your own. A “leave your problems and worries at the door” type deal while you immerse yourself in a world entirely different from your own. I feel that eliminating the narrative that being queer has to be a struggle truly lends itself to great fiction that allows a greater audience to feel included in these stories.
How is any of this about Once & Future? I’m getting there, I promise!
Once & Future is a retelling of King Arthur. Except it’s set in the future. In space. Merlin’s aged backward and is now a teen. The Arthurian cycle has kept repeating with Merlin finding and training Arthur, trying to defeat Morgana, and Arthur dying only to be reborn again and it’s been repeating a lot. In fact, this is the 42nd incarnation of Arthur. And her name is Ari, a pansexual refugee, who flies through space with her adoptive brother Kay in their Millenium Falcon-esque, repurposed, hunk-o-junk ship, Error. Oh, and the bad guys are the Mercer Corporation who pretty much control the entire galaxy. Capitalism. The bad guy is capitalism. This is an unapologetically queer, gender-bent retelling of King Arthur set in space where you’re rooting for the protagonists to kick capitalism in the teeth.
Almost every major character you meet is LGBTQ+ and yet it’s entirely incidental. It’s not a major plot point. It’s not a source of conflict. It just is. And it’s beautiful. We have a pansexual female King Arthur with adoptive moms (yes, plural), a bisexual Gwenivere, a gay Merlin, an asexual knight, and a genderfluid knight and that’s just what I can recall off the top of my head. I love that it’s not just a token queer couple. Some might argue that it’s just ‘unrealistic’ to have a cast of this many queer characters to which I say, “have you ever looked at the queer community in real life?” We all end up flocking together through some force of nature. Somehow we find each other, whether we realize it when it’s happening or not. Having more than just one or two queer characters made it feel right.
Now, all of this on-the-page representation obviously hits the ‘see yourself in the characters’ part of what I spoke to earlier, but I also spoke to how it’s great to be able to escape into a fictional world. I feel like most of the novels I’ve read in the past that had great queer rep were specifically about being queer or set in a contemporary world. To be able to slip into a fantasy world and see myself not only represented but in a retelling of a classic tale that’s been near and dear to me most of my life (see: love of knights, paragraph 2)? I can die happy. It felt like home and a hug in a nice sci-fi/fantasy setting.
I know we all hear the phrase ‘representation matters’ thrown around a lot. I just want to weigh in on the impact books like this one could have had on my life as a teen. As someone who grew up in the Midwest, my exposure to much of anything LGBTQ+ related was very minimal. I remember vaguely becoming aware that being gay was a thing, but that was about all I knew. You were either gay or you weren’t and clearly, I wasn’t. I mean, I had like four Orlando Bloom posters hung up in my bedroom – I obviously was into guys. But I also had what I thought of as a ‘healthy appreciation’ for females.
Bisexuality wasn’t anything really discussed … anywhere. It wasn’t until I went off to college that I was even aware it was a thing. By then I was in an unhealthy relationship wherein my boyfriend with incredibly low self-esteem would constantly go on about how he was such a bad partner that I’d for sure come out as gay after him. And of course, it was my duty to reassure him that I was indeed straight and would remain so. All while I was struggling to try and figure out what my feelings towards women really were.
It wouldn’t be until I was into my 20s that I would come to terms with the fact that I was indeed bisexual. And later on, when I learned about pansexuality, I was like, “Now this is it! I got it for real this time.” If I’m being real with you, I’m still trying to figure it all out. But at least I have the information that I need at my disposal now. But I can also guarantee you that I would have gone a lot farther in figuring out who I am at a much younger age had there been characters like Ari in books I was reading. Had the information been in the books I consumed (let’s be real, devoured), even if that knowledge wasn’t readily presented to me in the real world, I could have been spared a lot of years of inner turmoil and confusion and gotten along to living my best life as my truest self a lot earlier. And it is truly my hope that this book, or even books like it, finds its way into the hands of those it can help feel understood.
Since I don’t want this post to go on and on forever, I’ll quickly sum up things I love about this book I haven’t covered yet.
- As a millennial, I too want to take down capitalism. HONESTLY, THIS IS THE VILLAIN I NEVER KNEW I NEEDED IN A KING ARTHUR STORY
- The humor. This book kills me. It handles some pretty dark subject matter but the phrase ‘the hamster wheel of tragedy’ within the first twenty pages and I’m in love
- THERE IS AN ENTIRE REN FAIRE PLANET, I KID YOU NOT
- Why settle for knights or space when you can have BOTH?
- We are not here to bury our gays. Not here, not today!
- Did I mention that this is a #ownvoices work?
- THAT. COVER. I love me a good Bill Ellis cover but this just might be my favorite
And, as much as I love this book, I def feel obligated to pass along CWs:
- Death of a loved one
- Death of a companion animal (as good of a descriptor as I can muster—pretty much does the dog die? Yes, but it’s not a dog)
I’d be remiss if I failed to at least briefly discuss the authors here. Once & Future is co-authored by what can only be described as a queer writing power couple. Amy Rose identifies as a bisexual demigirl and Cori McCarthy as an asexual nonbinary trans man on the ace spectrum. Both are known for writing YA that feature LGBTQ+ characters. Together they even co-founded Rainbow Writers Retreat, a writing workshop for LGBTQIAP writers.
Also, Cori totally proposed to Amy Rose at the ‘space prom’ promotional event for Once & Future where they were both decked out in their Ren Faire get-ups and it was a beautiful moment. I’m still not entirely over it, and I wish nothing but the best for the happy couple!
To sum it all up:
- Queer rep matters
- I’m here for a good normalized queer moment
- A fresh, normalized queer take on a beloved classic makes my heart sing
- If anything in the description of this book resonated with you, please be sure to check out Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy
Shon is a pansexual blogger and avid who works a side gig as a scientist to help financially support her endeavor to get her grubby little mitts on as many books as possible. When she’s not devouring books or slamming her face into a keyboard, she enjoys spoiling her furbabies rotten and taking far too many pictures of them.