Once & Future, a space-set reimagining of Arthurian legend, was one of the most fun reading experiences I’ve had this year. Cori McCarthy and Amy Rose Capetta‘s young adult novel casts Arthur as teen girl named Ari living in a future where humanity has populated the galaxy. The story is highly-inclusive, action-packed, and ended on a killer cliffhanger.
Thankfully, McCarthy and Capetta aren’t going to leave us hanging for long. Once & Future is the first half of a duology and its sequel and conclusion, Sword in the Stars, is set to be released April 7th, 2020. Better than that, we have a sneak peek! Check out the exclusive cover reveal for the sequel, as well as an exclusive excerpt from the book itself.
Warning: Spoilers for the ending of Once & Future ahead…
Once & Future ended on a great cliffhanger: with Ari and Merlin traveling back in time to the Middle Ages with a seemingly impossible mission: to steal the Holy Grail. How are they faring in Sword in the Stars? Check out this exclusive excerpt…
Lost & Found
Merlin crash landed in the past with a great, undignified belly flop.
The chaos of waves left him torn between gasps and muttered curses. He had rocketed through the time portal, an endless sky dive without parameters or parachutes, before it dumped him in this flooded, cramped, circle of stone.
“Anyone else down here?” He bobbed. “No? Just me?” He splashed around, finding rough stone and high above, a hole punch of blue sky. This was no cavern. The walls had been hacked in a pattern that spoke of plans and intentions and humanity. He was in a well.
“Nothing a little magic won’t fix.” But when Merlin went to dig some up, he was near empty. Trying to keep everyone together in a time portal with completely different laws of physics had drained him. And it hadn’t even worked. He would worry about that later; for now he had to get out and see if their great gamble had paid off.
Merlin braced his arms and legs for a long climb. The well was narrow enough that he could jam himself between two opposing sides, scuttling upward and hurting his back and his neck and his dignity most of all. “Dignity is for knights,” he scoffed under his breath. Merlin was a mage. A bit of absurdity came with the territory.
When he reached the top, he gripped the side, hoisted one leg, and rolled over. Merlin hit the flagstones of a central square with a resounding smack. He stood, shoved his glasses into place, and looked around.
It wasn’t off in some hazy distance, surrounded by dragons and dreams. The city was here, the city was now. A normal day in Camelot should have been bustling with crowds, crying babies, forges clanging, and those incessant flutists, a shrill reminder that music wouldn’t improve for centuries. Yet all was silent, still. Layers of odor that Merlin hadn’t even known he’d missed stampeded his senses. Damp earth. Sprightly grass. Meat cooked in a godless amount of butter…
And there was his castle rising above the whole scene, keeping watch over the city. It was Arthur’s too, yes, but Merlin had design it for the young king, giving it towers and secrets that regular castles could hardly dream about. It had been his highest achievement, next to Arthur’s reign. Only now the castle looked small—the starscrapers of the twenty-second century had broken Merlin’s sense of scale—and yet the way it stood against this perfect blue morning left a mark.
On the sky. On his soul.
He was home.
Merlin’s memories should have risen up to meet him, rather like the flagstones had risen up to meet his face, but none were forthcoming. Perhaps he was too nervous. After all, he wasn’t supposed to be facing his past alone. The time portal had tried to burst his body into atomic confetti, but even worse, it had ripped his friends away from one another. Merlin looked around for Ari, Gwen, Jordan, Lam, and Val, wondering if they’d all landed safely in the square while he alone had had the misfortune of shooting straight down the barrel of a smelly well.
All he found was one young person with a gaping mouth and fishy-wide eyes watching his every move. They had ruddy white skin and scruffy brown hair, and they said a word that sounded a fair bit like shit.
It was hard to adjust now that Merlin had gotten used to the distinct Mercer accent of the future. Not Mercer; English, the language is English, Merlin corrected. Curse that consumer monster with its uncanny knack for swallowing culture and rebranding history! Actually, he’d gone back far enough that England didn’t exist quite yet. The island was known as Brittania during this time. He spent a moment mentally mapping it out: Camelot’s golden age had flowered just before the Norman invasion, and after the island’s run-in with the Roman Empire, which left nothing but divisions and bath houses in its wake.
“Good day!” Merlin shouted heartily, causing the scruffy kid to drop their bucket.
They eyed Merlin, then the well. “Did you spring from the roots of the stone?”
“Stones don’t have roots,” Merlin quipped, though he enjoyed the way this language lent itself to metaphor. His future-y friends had been so amused by his allegorical loquaciousness, but it was a remnant of his origins, a rare one he actually treasured. Not that he knew his precise origins. The farthest back he could remember was waking up in the crystal cave, ancient and alone.
“Then where did you come from?” the small stranger asked.
Merlin suppressed the desire to say a galaxy far, far away. “I’m from Camelot.”
He was only half a foot taller than this young person, which begged the question, how old was Merlin these days? Was it possible he’d gotten younger since they left the future? Perhaps the portal had shaved off more of his life. A penalty for time travel? Morgana had given up her existence to send them back, while Excalibur had broken to bits. Was this his price?
Merlin loved magic, but sometimes it was unmistakably the worst.
The kid grumbled as they sent the bucket down the well, while Merlin twisted water from the ruby robes Ari had gifted him on Ketch. He tried not to look suspicious, though that ship had probably sailed to distant seas by now. First things first, he needed to find the crowds. Ari was always at the center of the action, the others not far behind. They were her little ducklings. Thinking of Jordan and her knightly skills, he course-corrected: lethal ducklings. “What’s happening today? Where is everyone?”
“All attend King Arthur’s wedding,” the kid said, sweating under the weight of the bucket as they brought it back up. “He takes his bride in the tournament ring.”
Oh yes, the ever-delightful treatment of women as possessions. He was definitely back.
Something clicked oddly. “Gweneviere? Arthur is already marrying Queen Gweneviere?” He didn’t know why he was surprised. He’d commanded the portal to take them back to Arthur’s eighteenth birthday season, which had been a particularly momentous time for the young king and a rather squishy blank period in Merlin’s memories. That’s when the enchanted chalice had appeared—and disappeared—and that’s what Arthur’s spirit had sent them back to retrieve.
“The Lady Gweneviere comes from afar,” the kid said eagerly. “An exotic beauty. My friend says she’s a force for good in Camelot, but my mother believes she bewitched the king.”
Ah, another piece of the past he hadn’t missed. The perfect storm of anti-political, cultural, and social correctness. His friends were in for a migraine of homophobic, racist, and gender-related fuckery. He had to find them. Fast.
“Where is the wedding?” Merlin barked, making the kid jump.
They pointed beyond the city walls, and Merlin left at a run. His path wound him around Camelot’s central castle, as glowering as it was grand, with eight-foot thick walls, stones capped with dark moss, and mere arrow slits for windows. He forced himself not to look up at the tallest tower. Another version of him might be up there, even now. Merlin had told his friends he didn’t want to expose them to the horrors of the middle ages, which was true, but some of those horrors weren’t just historical. They were deeply, deeply personal. He had to avoid a run-in with his old self at all costs.
“Shouldn’t be hard,” he murmured. “As long as we stay out of the castle and don’t cause any scenes.” How likely was it that Ari had found trouble in the few minutes they’d been apart?
Good heavens, Merlin needed to sprint.
As his breath cut short and his feet rubbed against the inside of his wet boots, he soothed himself with one of his focused to-do lists. Merlin had to find his friends, steal the chalice, and make a new time portal to return them to the night they left.
Oh, he thought, three steps. Always a good sign.
In the back of his mind he added less immediate, but ever-important hopes: to protect Gwen’s baby, reverse his ridiculous backwards aging, and release Arthur’s spirit from Ari’s body, allowing the dead king to finally rest. To end this cursed cycle once and for all. But surely those things would happen if they made it back to the future and irreversibly stopped Mercer.
“Piece of—” A scent wafted over Merlin. “Delicious roasted meat.”
A cheer rifled the air, and the cacophony led him through the main gates and up a dirt road slick with mud. In the near distance, atop a perfectly green hill, a proud tournament ring held thousands of people and quite the celebration. The pennants were flying, bearing the red dragon and Excalibur. More promising smells hit. His stomach roared, and he told it to stop being so Kay-like.
He pushed himself to remember the less than admirable qualities of this place. Even from a distance, the divisions of an unequal society stood out. Commoners huddled together on the edges of the ring, while the nobles kept comfy seats under the dyed red pavilions. If Merlin dared to ask anyone their pronouns, he might very well be treated as more dangerous than a rogue mage.
Merlin elbowed through the commoners for a better look. He was a bit grimy from well climbing, which helped him fit in with this foul-smelling bunch. Musicians lit up horns, and everyone stilled with anticipation. Everything looked and sounded and felt like the start of a royal celebration.
He really had come out of the time portal at the right moment. It was the first bit of good news since Ketch, when for a few glorious nights he’d believe the universe was free of the Mercer Company’s oily grasp and headed for the end of the Arthurian cycle. He had celebrated with Val and copious amounts of kissing.
Val. They had all gotten separated in the time portal—Ari first, then Gwen, Lam, and Jordan—but Val and Merlin had been holding onto each other, Val’s brown eyes the only grounding force as every rule of physics was stripped away, and they plummeted toward a nightmare Merlin thought he’d escaped long ago.
And then Merlin blinked, and Val was gone. Stolen right out of his arms.
Drumbeats announced the procession as knight after knight on horseback rode into the ring. Merlin watched while they circled, noticing armor from all kinds of places. Most likely these knights had traveled for weeks to attend the event and seek favor from the king. Some of their suits were polished silver, some red, scratched, and dented, others blackened with coal. One knight stood out in blue armor, a circular dragon emblazoned on his breastplate.
Merlin squinted, both recognizing the image and drawing a complete blank. “I should remember more,” he muttered, but then, he was seeing this wedding for the first time. His old self had boycotted Arthur’s wedding—that much he did remember.
After the knights, women with flowers in their hair and woven around their ankles stepped forward, faces calm but unsmiling. As they formed a circle and started a complex pattern of steps, Merlin noted that it wasn’t a homogenous medieval dance crew. For some reason, he had expected everyone to be whiter than the puffy clouds above the tournament ring. A single look proved that wasn’t true. While some girls were white and wildly freckled, others had smooth bronze complexions. There were pale blondes and paler redheads, as well as maidens with warm brown skin and tight black curls tumbling out of their braided crowns. One girl had a Middle Eastern set to her features and jewel-bright eyes much like Ari. And one looked so much like Jordan with her thick blonde braid that Merlin did a double take. But no. Jordan would put her neck on the block before she’d throw herself into such festivities.
Merlin went back to scanning the—also surprisingly diverse—crowd for his friends, when the star of the show appeared.
“King Arthur!” the people cried as one. “All hail King Arthur!”
Merlin’s heart skidded to a stop. It had been so long since he’d seen Arthur. His first family, his only real family until Ari and the others swept him into their lives. At a distance, Arthur looked small, his straw hair unkempt beneath a golden circlet crown and his moves jerky with nerves. There was no command in his presence, no steel in his gaze. He wasn’t yet the king of legend, but he wasn’t the curious, half-wild boy Merlin visited so often in memories. He was caught between the two.
Merlin wanted nothing more than to shout Arthur’s name, break through the crowds, and reunite himself with his former ward and first magical pupil, but such a meeting wasn’t in the books. Interacting with the story in the past was strictly off-limits. They were here to steal from Camelot, not make fools of themselves by bum-rushing the king.
Arthur walked slightly sideways, pulling a woman in a cream-white dress in his wake. She wore greenery in her dark curled hair, blossoms around her neck, and a decorative knot of cords on her wrist that bound her to Arthur’s arm.
“Gweneviere!” several people shouted, almost reverently. Many more stayed silent. While no one would openly jeer the king’s choice, dislike crusted over plenty of features. Merlin huffed and looked back to the bride. And blinked. And then blinked harder.
The girl he’d known as the queen of her own Renaissance Faire Planet was standing at the dead center of Camelot, her gaze defiant until she turned to Arthur and gave him an encouraging nod. Gwen looked like she fit right in, perhaps because her life had been a unique form of training for this moment. Though her mix of European and East Asian heritage set her apart enough that the youth at the well had given her the micro aggressive title of “exotic.”
The truth was that Gwen had come from much farther than China or Japan. Far enough to be measured in galaxies and centuries. That’s the sort of distance it took to be safe from Mercer, and they were meant to be hiding out, yet it looked like Gwen had done more than storm the castle—she’d broken down the doors of the king’s heart.
In a single day? How?
Sword in the Stars is now available to pre-order via Barnes & Noble. Once and Future is now available to buy at local independent bookstore—such as the authors’ local independent bookstore, Bear Ponds Books.
You can check out our podcast interview with McCarthy and Capetta below….
Read and download the Den of Geek SDCC 2019 Special Edition Magazine right here!