Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn (2020), the first book in her LEGENDBORN CYCLE, wasn’t on my radar until I saw it on the Locus Awards finalists list for Best Young Adult novel. I grabbed the audiobook and one of the YAs that lives in my house (Tali, my 18-year-old daughter) and we listened to Legendborn together as we worked a jigsaw puzzle. We agreed to give Legendborn a rating of 3.5 which is quite a bit lower than the book currently rates at both Amazon and GoodReads, so keep that in mind (YMMV). The bottom line is that we found the story entertaining and wanted to know what happened, but there were too many issues for us to fully endorse Legendborn.
Bree Matthews is a young black high school student who is smart and successful enough that she gets admitted, along with her best friend Alice, to the Early College program at the University of North Carolina. Bree didn’t tell her parents that she applied so, when she informs her mom (a UNC alumnus) that she was accepted, her mom freaks out. Then she dies in a car accident which fills Bree with an immense amount of guilt.
When Bree gets to UNC, still grieving, things get weird on the very first night when she breaks the rules by going off campus to a party where she sees some monsters that Alice can’t see and meets some students who seem to know what’s going on. When she begins to suspect that the strange things happening to her may be related to her mother’s perhaps non-accidental death, she investigates by joining the Legendborn – the secret society those students belong to. It turns out to be the Knights of the Round Table who’ve descended directly from King Arthur and his knights.
Bree begins training as a page and meets a couple of amazingly super hot guys who happen to think she’s amazingly super hot, too. Meanwhile, she’s also getting counseling from a psychologist who wants Bree to shun Arthur’s magic and instead learn about the kind of magic that black women call “root.”
As I mentioned, Legendborn was entertaining all the way through and I thought Deonn’s twist on the Arthurian legend was a cool concept, especially the way she addressed race issues. Deonn isn’t at all heavy-handed with this, but it’s an ever-present and thought-provoking undercurrent as Bree never feels like she truly belongs. Bree is aware that some members of the society don’t want her there and, for others, she’s merely a “diversity” candidate. At one point Bree laments that while her Legendborn friends can trace their ancestry all the way back to King Arthur, the knowledge of her own ancestors only goes back a couple of generations because they lost their history when they came to America as slaves. At the end of the novel we discover a particularly ugly race issue at the heart of the story. Grief is another topic that Deonn handles deftly.
While Tali and I liked the premise of Legendborn and how the author dealt with race and grief, we thought the plot suffered from some typical YA pitfalls. Most egregious was the insta-love between Bree and Nick, a descendant of King Arthur. Bree and Nick had known each other for only a couple of days when they both begin acting as if they’d each die for the other and making life-changing decisions based on that. As far as I could tell, they had little in common and hardly knew each other. The rest of the plot hinged on this relationship that was hard to believe in. Along comes another hot and dangerous guy to make a Guinevere – Arthur – Lancelot type of love triangle… sigh, another overused and predictable YA trope, though I appreciated the parallel to the Arthur legend.
Tali declared that there was a little too much going on in this first LEGENDBORN novel and I agree. The story takes place over just a few weeks and things happen too quickly, there are too many types of magic, way too much teenage angst, and too many infodumps, revelations, twists, and surprises for one novel. I rarely say this kind of thing, but this story probably should have been slowed down a bit and dispensed over the course of two novels. That would, for example, give Bree a chance to actually train for the squire competition in which she must defeat opponents who’ve been training all their lives, as well as a little more time to fall in love with Nick.
The next LEGENDBORN book, Bloodmarked, is expected in November 2022 and, at the moment of this writing, has a 4.64-star rating at GoodReads, which tells you how excited Deonn’s fans are. Again, take our review with a grain of salt, especially if you happen to love the YA tropes that I hate. As I said, YMMV.
We listened to the audiobook version of Legendborn which is 19 hours long and produced by Simon & Schuster Audio. Actress Joniece Abbott-Pratt’s voice is perfect for Bree but some of her southern accents made me cringe.
Like Kat, I found much to like in the debut YA contemporary fantasy, Book One of the LEGENDBORN CYCLE. The “new” take on the Arthurian folklore y was nice, and I loved the introduction of root magic and the interplay of the two. Bree’s blocked grief is well-depicted, and regardless of whether I “like” the reasoning, kudos to Deonn for creating one rationale for why YA fantasy heroes always have dead mothers.
I thought the prose was good. The way Bree is constantly confronted with the realities of racism was well done too, and, for me, chilling. In the second half of the story, both the plot and the magic systems morphed into something new to me.
I struggled with the entire first half, though. In addition to leaning a little too heavily on the tropes of “dark academia,” the first part resonated too closely with Cassandra Clare’s first SHADOWHUNTERS book. At an illicit party, Bree witnesses a snooty boy and girl kill a demonic entity no one else seems to see. The secretly magical people live in a mansion with endless weapons, endless healing powers, and a disregard for anybody else. The character of Selwyn Kane, an arch mage or “merlin” is a misunderstood bad-boy covered in cool tattoos. The similarities are hard to put aside.
Kat mentioned the insta-love between Nick and Bree, which wasn’t very plausible, although at the very end there is a reason floated for it. While I cringed at Bree’s impulsivity and bad decision-making, I think a younger reader would see this as initiative, so it probably works. Once we got to the erased history of the enslaved people, root magic, and the connection Bree has to her ancestors, the book changed into something fresh and fascinating, and Deonn successfully weaves the two magical legacies together at the end.
I would easily recommend Legendborn to a young adult reader with the disclaimer that the book changes about halfway through. For me, those changes were all for the better.