In the interest of full disclosure, I’m going to start off by saying that I’m a Christian and thus don’t agree with the lifestyle choices of the LGBTQ+ community. I won this book in a giveaway, and if I had read the reviews to see that Once & Future had heavy LGBTQ+ themes, I probably wouldn’t have entered the giveaway at the time. However, I respect the individuals who identify with the LGBTQ+ community and decided to read this book out of a desire to better understand those individuals. Unfortunately, this turned out not to be the best book for that as the writing didn’t do the community justice (in my opinion, as an outsider).
My biggest disappointment with this book was the characters. All of them, with the exception of Merlin, felt very one-dimensional at the outset. Their orientations and gender identities were pushed, which would have been uncomfortable for me but understandable except that it was at the expense of further character development. Each character seems to have very few traits beyond their orientation or preferred gender, and what traits do pop up are often told rather than shown. This is true throughout the book, as characters supposedly develop and/or backslide. Since character isn’t established from the beginning (or, really, at all), we don’t get to really see and appreciate any character’s development over the course of the book and everything is once again told instead of shown. I know (from experience) that individuals in the LGBTQ+ community are individuals with unique quirks and interests and traits, and I wanted to see that reflected in this book. Instead, I found cardboard cutouts slapped with LGBTQ+ labels.
I was also disappointed that I didn’t find most of the characters even particularly likable (in part, a side effect of their lack of development). Most felt self-absorbed and rather dysfunctional, and almost none of them had distinct voices. SPOILER WARNING: I was totally okay when Ari supposedly died and I was excited at the possibility of Merlin becoming the sole MC, to the degree that I was disappointed (though not surprised) when Ari was revealed to be alive. SPOILERS COMPLETE. The exceptions to this rule were Merlin, Val, Morgana, and Gwen (to varying degrees). Merlin is almost always my favorite character in Arthurian stories, and the Merlin in Once & Future seemed by far to be the most fleshed-out character. He had internal struggles, quirks beyond his sexuality (I loved his habit of talking in song references), and was just overall a more likeable character than any of the others. Unfortunately, I do think his character suffered some from the imbalance of show and tell and I would have liked to see his internal struggle fleshed out and explored through its impact on his actions more, earlier; it didn’t feel like it was fully realized until the third quarter of the book or so.
Val, Morgana, and Gwen were somewhere between Merlin and everyone else on the likability scale. Both felt like they were supposed to be well-done characters that I would have liked, but didn’t quite live up to their potential. Val seems to be a compassionate character, with skills and insights from his past and his current occupation that I would have loved to see come into play more to make him a better-rounded and more unique character. Gwen was one of those queens who will do anything for her people and is willing to sacrifice her own desires for them, which is a character type that I love, but I felt like the lack of stakes (which I’ll tackle later) didn’t allow that to really shine and we never got to see her willingly surrender anything significant for the good of her people. Morgana, like Merlin, stands out because of her longevity and the struggles and quirks wrapped up in that; but, like the others, I don’t feel like she really had a chance to shine and don’t feel like her character had as much of an impact on her actions as I might have liked.
And then there’s The Administrator, who has so little character that he barely even qualifies for the “character” section and I almost dumped him into “plot.” There’s no set-up for The Administrator. There’s no fear factor whatsoever. We know nothing about him as a character, only what he represents (and that’s not even much), and he feels like one of those “Evil just to be evil” villains even though his motivation is laid out (in “telling” fashion) and he’s supposed to be clever. Had he been written well and that cunning truly explored, I think he could have made an extremely effective villain. As it is, he did nothing to improve the plot or stakes.
Mercer, the corporation that The Administrator operates as the face of, isn’t even that scary. It’s only terror is in its nuggets of real life possibility, but even those are stretched thin with unlikely situations such as a planet with a quota of unnecessary things to buy per day in order to remain a citizen. I also take issue with the fact that Ari describes said planet as “unchecked capitalism,” when capitalism requires a free market and is notably not run entirely by the government as is the case in the world of Once & Future. What’s put forward is communism, not capitalism.
The world is also unrealistic (or perhaps idealistic, for the LGBTQ+ community) in its numbers of homosexual, trans, pansexual, etc., etc. characters. Even if every LGBTQ+ issue was completely resolved and everything was allowed, it would not be close to difficult to find a straight person. The LGBTQ+ community makes up only 4.5% of the American population; I’m sorry to burst your bubble, but LGBTQ+ is not close to the default, and there would still be way more straight people than LGBTQ+ even in a “perfect” world.
Even setting aside orientation, I thought all of the relationships focused too much on lust and not enough on… anything of substance, much less true love. Even when there was something more there (as in the case of Merlin and Val), it was undermined and overshadowed by the characters’ incessant thoughts of touching, kissing, sleeping together, etc. And in some cases (such as Gwen and Ari), we’re told there’s more there but it never really shines through (and it’s still overshadowed by incessant lusty thoughts). In addition, the “romantic” scenes were more descriptive than I would have liked and more descriptive than I’m personally comfortable with in YA. (But that’s a whole issue to itself that doesn’t need to be tackled in this review.)
I also found the normalization of promiscuity distasteful, but that much is unfortunately realistic.
As far as plot is concerned, I still wasn’t impressed. Sure, there’s a series of connected events that lead to an ultimate climax and triumph of good over evil and yada yada yada, but it all felt rather disjointed to me. And, again, Mercer wasn’t threatening. Like the characters, the world didn’t feel fleshed out enough for the stakes to be meaningful. Okay, so there’s an evil corporation threatening an entire planet with dehydration. So show me people dying of dehydration. Show them trying to get around their government to get water. Show that threat being a threat, not just to random bystanders we’ve never met but also to the main characters themselves.
One thing I will say is that the writing, while not phenomenal as prose is concerned, kept the book moving along. The pacing was extremely fast (to the detriment of any story element’s development, in my opinion), and while I wish we’d had more time to focus on the world’s or the characters’ development, it did at least grant the blessing of making this a quick read.
Ultimately, Merlin, his relationship with Morgana, the links to Arthurian legend, and what little nuggets of character and worldbuilding were there nudged this up to two stars for me, but only barely. Now I guess I’m in search of a better-written LGBTQ+ novel or an episode of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist so my hope of thoughtfulness in LGBTQ+-featuring media doesn’t die unfairly. ;P