Gay Arthurian Hijinks in Space: Once & Future by A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy

Once and Future cover

Buy this from Bookshop.org to support local bookstores and the Lesbrary!

Once & Future, by married couple A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy, takes Arthurian mythos into the stars. It follows the latest, and hopefully last, reincarnation of King Arthur, now a teenage girl named Ari, and the wizard Merlin, who, due to his backwards aging, is now a teenager. Merlin’s job is, and has always been, to keep the Arthurs safe. With her own band of knights (a tight-knit and extremely diverse group of lifelong friends, including a bisexual Guinevere who is queen of her own Renaissance Faire-themed planet!), Ari must step up to defend the galaxy from its next great danger. The great danger that has called Arthur back this time? Space capitalism. (Seriously, the main villain and his company are pretty clear stand-ins for Amazon.)

I’m genuinely so obsessed with this. Listen, I was a Merlin gay in high school, and I still consider it one of my favorite shows, even though there are parts of it I really hate. It’s complicated. This book is not Merlin, it’s not trying to be Merlin, but it does scratch that Merlin itch I get sometimes, and it does it without any of the things that make me angry when I watch that show I still love. Literally every problem I have—absent in this book.

Now to talk about the book itself, I had an actual blast reading it. I laughed so much, felt genuinely sad, and I think I might have cheered out loud at least once. I’m pretty good at judging how I’ll feel about a book before I start it, so I end up enjoying most of the books I read, but this one caught me off guard by how much more I loved it than I was prepared to. Throughout the day, I kept thinking “I can’t wait for my lunch break so I can keep reading,” “I can’t wait to get home so I can keep reading,” “I can’t wait until I finish my dinner so I can keep reading.” I cannot emphasize enough how much I always looked forward to continuing this book when I wasn’t reading it.

I think the main thing I love is the characters. Arthurian retellings can be tricky because there are so many different interpretations of the characters, and someone always ends up getting villainized, and sometimes it’s for reasons that are really stupid. This book does not do that. There is so much sympathy for all of these kids and the archetypes they’ve been slotted into. I loved Ari’s and Gwen’s determination to remain themselves, and I loved how much of Merlin’s arc centered around the idea that he can protect Arthur/Ari while also having a life for himself (and maybe also kiss that cute boy who likes him).

If I had one “note” (I can’t even call it a criticism because for me it wasn’t an issue, but I could see other people feeling different), I will say the relationship development sometimes moved a little quickly, but again, I didn’t mind at all because the relationships, platonic and romantic, were so great.

This is the Arthurian retelling of my dreams. It’s funny, it’s sympathetic, and it’s gay as hell. It is exactly the book I wish existed when I was in high school, but lucky for me now, A.R. Capetta and Cory McCarthy wrote two of them!

An Anti-Capitalist Murder Mystery in Space: Stars, Hide Your Fires by Jessica Mary Best

the cover of Stars, Hide Your Fires

Bookshop.org Affiliate Link

You ever read something that you really really want to love but can’t? That was Stars, Hide Your Fires for me. I’m a huge sucker for political sci-fi/fantasy, and while I more often read heftier adult novels, I do occasionally browse the young adult section of my local bookstore. From the back-cover blurb to the first few chapters, it really seemed like this one was a shoo-in for me, but ultimately I found it lacking.

Cass is a pickpocket and con artist who grew up on Sarn, a backwater moon in the Helian Empire. Her family is desperately poor, barely surviving by selling salvage and trinkets stolen from the tourists leaving Sarn’s single resort, but she has a plan to get them out: sneak and lie her way into the emperor’s ball, nab as much fancy jewelry as she can while chatting up the aristocrats, then buy tickets to anywhere but Sarn and a lifetime of not having to worry about the next meal for everyone she cares about.

Her plan gets royally messed up, however, when the emperor is murdered just before he was expected to name his heir, and someone slips the evidence into her pockets. Now she’s trapped and has to work with the mysterious Amaris, a member of the rebel Voyria, to find the real killer before it gets pinned on them both.

Best’s worldbuilding is stellar (pun very much intended). “Young Person from Bad Planet goes off to take down the Evil Empire” is hardly the most obscure setup, but there’s lots of detail that gives it a distinctly anti-capitalist vibe that I found very compelling. Sarn is a barren world, reduced to a wasteland by corporations shipping all of their fertile soil off to other planets for private gardens, and its economy is barely kept afloat by a single luxury resort offering exotic vacations to the wealthy. One of the aristocrats Cass steals from is very proud of how she’s saving silkworms by underpaying workers to harvest silk from dangerous spiders that can destroy their hands. The emperor keeps a cadre of exact clones around just so he can have organ transplants on demand. There’s a war going on far away in the background, but this story cares less about the external conflict and more about the internal inequality of the empire, which I really liked.

The plot is promising, but doesn’t quite live up to the potential of the setting. The mystery is particularly obvious in a way that found me groaning in frustration when the characters went after the red herrings. The pacing can also get a bit weird at times—multiple chapters are spent setting up Cass’ situation on Sarn and planning her heist, but when she’s forced to execute her plan early because a dangerous fence found out she conned him, that situation gets pushed past in just a couple pages. This is a pattern that is repeated several times throughout the book, and it makes the potentially lethal threats feel somewhat less lethal by how fast they’re dispatched in favor of moving things along.

Where I felt the book really let me down was the characters. I so desperately wanted to love thief-with-a-heart-of-gold Cass, but while she’s very charming and easily likeable, she comes off kind of flat. I kept expecting what I thought was her fatal flaw—overconfidence despite being in a completely unfamiliar environment—to come back to bite her, but it never really does. She takes risks constantly and most of them just kind of work out. Amaris is similarly lacking a character arc, and by the end of the book I felt like I was looking at the exact same people as I was at the beginning.

The romance is… not really there. In a way, I appreciate that, because the meat of the story where the two are together takes place over what I believe is the span of a few hours, so there’s not really a lot of time to build a meaningful relationship, but the few moments that there are feel just a little forced. I wouldn’t say it’s bad, exactly, but just don’t go in expecting too much.

Overall, I suspect that Stars, Hide Your Fires is, despite what I was hoping, just not for me. I know plenty of people who care significantly less about character arcs and more about cool settings and fun plots, and if that’s what you’re in for I think you’ll probably really enjoy it.

Content Warnings: a brief reference to a side character’s eating disorder early on, police brutality