Here we are again, gang: this time with a sci-fi myth retelling, a quiet historical coming-of-age story, and a contemporary romance (featuring a love triangle that stays triangular). Read on…
Once & Future by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy (2019)
Rating: 2 out of 5 ancient mythical swords
Rainbow rep: a pansexual lead in an f/f romance, and a whole cast of queer characters including a gay wizard, non-binary space-knights, and spacefaring married mums.
Premise: the concept of Arthur as “the once and future king” is taken to its logical extreme when, centuries into the future when humankind has long since fled to and colonised the hell out of space, an interplanetary refugee named Ari crash-lands on Earth and pulls Excalibur out of a tree. Ari is the forty-second reincarnation of King Arthur, and her arrival serves to wake up both her nemesis Morgana and her mentor Merlin, who has aged backwards over each re-hash of the Arthurian cycle and is now a scruffy teenager. Ari and Merlin form a begrudging alliance and set out to gather a rowdy team of space-knights to overthrow the galaxy-wide monopoly corporation that serves as The Greatest Evil of this particular age.
I will absolutely 100% give this book points for its concept. When you’re playing around with myths, you may as well get mega playful in this era when these stories have been told and retold and reshaped and remoulded so many times. I love the idea of Arthur manifesting in every era whenever a hero is needed, becoming more of an archetypal figure than an individual, and I love Merlin’s reluctant awareness of how the cycle tends to follow a particular pattern every time no matter how he tries to meddle with things—there’s some beautiful metatextual commentary to be had there about the nature of myth retellings themselves, and how their meanings and content can change while keeping their nature intact. Who’s to say that the image of The Once and Future King has to remain a medieval white dude? As times change, who’s to say The World’s Greatest Hero can’t instead manifest as a plucky, rowdy, queer brown girl intent on liberating her universe from the grip of capitalism?
All that said… the execution just didn’t do it for me. The prose and plot have a tendency to move at breakneck speed, and the chaotic nature of this isn’t quite balanced out with descriptive flourishes and observations as it was in The Brilliant Death. Massive important actions happen in the space of a sentence and suddenly we’re flung through to whatever the next thing is. There’s a joking nudge to a TV producer in the acknowledgements, saying if they want to make Once & Future into a show they’re welcome to call, and it sort of makes me wonder if this would work better as a long-form visual piece of media. It would mean you didn’t have to rely on the sparse prose to figure out what you were meant to be envisioning, and it would perhaps give the large cast of characters and very large premise more room to breathe and develop.
Overall, unfortunately this is a bit of a hot mess, but that’s not to say it doesn’t have fun parts—you just have to lean into the cheesiness of the whole thing. Immortal memelord Merlin initially made me cringe a little, but I ended up finding him the most interesting part of the book (and you know what? More media needs to embrace the inherent cringiness of Merlin as a character and a concept and bully him accordingly). I wish this had given itself more time to draw development out of some of the other, potentially equally interesting characters, but alas. I guess I’ll have to wait for the TV version (which, honestly, I would give a go, even if I’m not necessarily convinced to read Book Two).
Silhouette of a Sparrow by Molly Beth Griffin (2012)
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 rare birds
Rainbow rep: an f/f romance, some (off-page, but emotionally influential) Cool Lesbian Aunties
Premise: Minnesota, 1926—with a polio epidemic in town and a PTSD-wracked father at home, it is decided that young Garnet should spend the summer away to “take the lake air”. On holiday, Garnet feels far from relaxed—her stuck-up relatives don’t make for the best company, and looming over her head all the while is the knowledge that this is her last summer as a child, since when she returns she’s expected to finish school and marry her nice, but extremely bland, boyfriend. Garnet tentatively flees the hotel to work part-time in a hat shop in town, where she discovers both the exhilarating feeling of independence and the gorgeous dancer Isabella.
This is a delightful, quiet, character-focused piece of historical fiction, looking at a bizarre liminal period in history through the lens of one girl’s coming-of-age story. The ‘20s saw a lot of social change, and a lot more freedom for women generally speaking, but Garnet is not automatically Modern and Liberated so much as caught between two generations of shifting ideals. Her dilemma is very real and genuinely stressful: does she do what she’s been brought up to believe is the right thing, the legitimately sensible and safe thing, marrying A Nice Boy, ensuring herself some financial support in her increasingly rocky family situation? Or does she take the risk of following her own ambitions, studying natural science at university (Garnet’s #1 fascination is birds) and working, rather than settling down as a housewife?
Her queer identity is really only one small part of her conundrum—she certainly doesn’t have any sort of “gay crisis” and pretty much takes her attraction to the snazzy flapper Isabella in stride. And, it should be noted, the couple aren’t faced with any homophobic violence. Their friendship is frowned on because Isabella is “riff-raff”, and of course the two have to be secretive about their affection for each other—I was expecting this sneaking around to build up to some sort of forced outing or public shaming, but this never happens; in fact, the characters who do find out are quietly supportive. It was a sweet twist on the convention that LGBTQIA+ historical fiction must always feature at least one part about how dreadful and impossible it was to be queer in The Olden Times, as was the existence of Garnet’s Aunt Rachel and her partner.
This is a soft, gentle, sweet little book, that paints a picture of a sleepy, summery town in its historical heyday, and an interesting portrait of Garnet and her personal struggle. It doesn’t end with everything beautifully sorted out and tied with a bow, but it ends with a note of hope for both her and Isabella as they step forth to navigate the strange adult world.
This Song is (Not) For You by Laura Nowlin (2016)
Rating: 3 out of 5 experimental rock tunes
Rainbow rep: a polyamorous m/f/m relationship feat. an ace dude
Premise: Ramona and Sam have been best friends since the start of high school: they confide in each other about their fears for the future, they mock the insufferable normies that go to their fancy school, and most importantly they make music together in Sam’s garage. Most most importantly, they’re also both in love with each other, but neither wants to say so for fear of ruining the friendship. At an audition to a music college they meet the broody and artistic Tom, who clicks with both of them and quickly becomes part of the band. Everything seems to be falling into place, until Ramona realises she’s developing feelings for Tom… alongside her feelings for Sam?
This is a story about love and music and how the future is terrifying, told through a series of short scenes and introspective snippets from three interchanging narrators. This style was a little jarring at first, but it, like the characters, grew on me as I got into the swing of things. Oh, they’re pretentious artsy little buggers, but who am I to dunk on teen protagonists for that? I was plenty artsy and pretentious when I was in high school (though re: books rather than music and experimental street art); plus the amount of subtle character development these kids get over the course of quite a short book is impressive. Ramona, in particular, is drinking deep from a big cup of Not Like Other Girls juice at the start, and her maturation out of that (while still remaining true to her quirky self) is pretty rewarding even if it is a subplot to her relationship arc with Tom and Sam and the band.
Full disclosure, I’ve gone and spoiled the ending a little bit with that “rainbow rep” segment, but having that spoiled for me is one of the things that convinced me to pick this book up, so I may as well provide you the same service. I have been, conceptually, sick of love triangles for years, but I am always open to iterations that do something a bit different with the trope—and having the triangle turn into a poly romance rather than devolve into jealous drama is definitely one of those things. These three pretentious artsy teens are made for each other, and the triple-pointed relationship is very sweet to see evolve, with the complementary facets of Ramona and Sam’s long-time love for each other, Ramona and Tom’s sparky creative passion, and Tom and Sam’s delightful friendship which brings both boys out of their respective shells.
It was a neat little twist, too, to have Tom—the more confident, magnetic of the boys—be the one who turned out to be asexual, rather than the shy and withdrawn Sam, which might have leaned more towards stereotypes. The word “asexual” is never dropped, but Tom’s description of his feelings really can’t be imagined as anything else… though his ex-girlfriend was convinced that his lack of attraction to her must mean he’s gay. While it addresses microaggressions and misconceptions like this on surface level, I have to admit I wanted it to go a bit deeper, especially having been spoilt for choice with books like Tash Hearts Tolstoy and Let’s Talk About Love (which are, of course, both about female ace characters—it would be good to read a book with a male ace character that goes into the same amount of depth!) but the fact that it’s just there has its own merit too. Ramona, notably, doesn’t think it’s any kind of big deal, and it’s not even the reason that their relationship becomes polyamorous. They all just love each other, and it’s honestly delightful how matter-of-factly and sincerely they come to this agreement.