After her mother dies in an accident, sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews wants nothing to do with her family memories or childhood home. A residential program for bright high schoolers at UNC–Chapel Hill seems like the perfect escape—until Bree witnesses a magical attack her very first night on campus.
A flying demon feeding on human energies.
A secret society of so called “Legendborn” students that hunt the creatures down.
And a mysterious teenage mage who calls himself a “Merlin” and who attempts—and fails—to wipe Bree’s memory of everything she saw.
The mage’s failure unlocks Bree’s own unique magic and a buried memory with a hidden connection: the night her mother died, another Merlin was at the hospital. Now that Bree knows there’s more to her mother’s death than what’s on the police report, she’ll do whatever it takes to find out the truth, even if that means infiltrating the Legendborn as one of their initiates.
She recruits Nick, a self-exiled Legendborn with his own grudge against the group, and their reluctant partnership pulls them deeper into the society’s secrets—and closer to each other. But when the Legendborn reveal themselves as the descendants of King Arthur’s knights and explain that a magical war is coming, Bree has to decide how far she’ll go for the truth and whether she should use her magic to take the society down—or join the fight.
So much has already been said about Legendborn, it truly feels like there isn’t anything left to say, but here we go! In probably the buzziest and most talked about book this summer/fall (on my timeline anyways), Tracy Deonn’s take on Arthurian/YA/contemporary urban fantasy most definitely, and more than, lives up to the hype.
Using her own voice, Tracy has written this story with several things in mind, not least of which is representation. In lesser hands, that would seem like tokenism run amuck, but here it feels so natural you’ll wonder where it’s been the entire time. Sadly, we know the reason for that and all we can do now is ensure it never happens again, but let’s put a pin in that for now.
In a world that has been written about extensively, and continues to capture mainstream audiences, Tracy has made the story of “Arthur” feel entirely her own. And because she devotes so much time to restructuring that world, you don’t need any pre-knowledge of Arthurian legend, like, zero, to comprehend this book. In short, Tracy has chops, and she has them to spare, using a seemingly unique form of literary alchemy, her ability to sift through known literary tropes and produce something new. And because of that, and very slight comparisons to similar novels notwithstanding, Legendborn seems very fresh and extremely exciting. It many ways it feels like the future of YA fantasy, which is odd because it deals solely with the past and present.
Her plot and plotting are so good in fact; they outperform the characters on a regular basis, but is that a bad thing? Typically, if you don’t care about the leads, it’s hard to care at all. You won’t have that problem here, not liking the leads, but it’s fair to acknowledge that the story here is so incredibly strong, no character could possibly compete.
Here’s the gist of it, the world building is good if not great, and the subject matter is both vital and thoughtful. With parallel story lines, convergence is inevitable, even slightly predictable, but Tracy’s writing is just so damn good it’s an immensely pleasurable experience, culminating with a near-perfect ending. It’s not quite Gandalf at Helm’s Deep, but it’s pretty damn close.
And it is a YA book so yes, there’s insta-hard falling for good looking people, and a love triangle that will have fans picking sides. The two male leads, Nick Davis and Selwyn Kane, are what you’d expect, a Golden Retriever and a Rottweiler, and powerhouse lead Bree Mathews is torn between the two. If she’s at all interested in following Arthurian tropes (not really) then this descendant of Arthur (Bree), shouldn’t end up with an adulterous descendant of Lancelot (Nick), but I digress.
And while I see the obvious temptation to lean towards the bad boy, I’m guessing the honorable and pansexual Sel, will bow down instead, choosing service over love. But what I adore about this book is that Tracy doesn’t seem interested in taking the clearest path, nor should she, and that truly leaves things up in the air for Legendborn 2. Yes, it’s about as good an Act One as it gets, and I get the strong feeling Tracy is just warming up her aether.
The cast list is substantial, so it’s inevitable some will get benched, and that’s really the only slight I have, too many characters. But it’s very clearly Act One, Tracy has said as much, so there’s time for everyone to either get out of the way completely or shine bright. All the characters have enough nuances to go around and Tracy (smartly) has given herself plenty of wiggle room with them. I can’t say it enough and it bears repeating, Tracy’s mechanics are off-the-charts good and don’t do yourself a disservice by looking for flaws where none exist.
Her mix of real-world aesthetics and mythical realms creates a story balance not often seen, and she does this by grabbing a hold of tired tropes and kneading them to her will. She stretches the frame, making you feel that even a prestigious North Carolina university, a place where the remnants of history and the bleak legacy of slavery are not obvious, but are lurking just below the surface. And in some cases, clear as day if your willing to adjust the focus on your worldview.
There are two aspects of Legendborn which I was drawn to the most and will be the focus of this review. It’s not by accident they are connected in profound and obvious ways, as they focus on the relationship between Bree and her mother. But first we need to go over a few details which are important to the story, a glossary of terms if you will.
The “Legendborn” are descendants from the original Knights of the Round Table, yes, those Knights. The most important member of each line of succession is a “Scion”, a young adult trained from birth who can be “called” by their ancestor. Once “called”, they gain the preternatural powers that the line had such as “healing" or “super strength” They can also manipulate “aether”, a magical element in the air that they use to heal or turn into weapons.
Because there’s an order in which the knights can call their descendants, the fact is most will never be called upon to battle demons and such. This ends when a “Scion” dies or turns 23, then it gets passed onto to the next eligible member in their family.
“Merlins” are the exceptions to most of these rules. They are experts at wielding aether and do several things with it, all with the intention of protecting the current Scion of Arthur. One thing they can do, which is particularly important to this story, is “Mesmer” people’s memories, making them forget whichever the Merlin chooses. The “Kingsmage” is the most powerful Merlin of their generation.
There are other players in this game, important ones, such as “Onceborns”, but for my review, it’s not pertinent that we cover them. But understand that they are very important to Tracy’s story, so you’ll learn all about them when you read the book!
“…power taken and not returned incurs a debt, and the universe and the dead will always come to collect…”
The abilities on display by Legendborn’s and Merlin’s, their “Bloodcraft”, seems less interesting to me than the “Rootcraft” possessed by Bree and her ancestors, and its reveal is one of many turning points in the book. Once you learn that other forms of magic exist in this world, and that that magic is connected to the earth in profound ways, the story really opens right up.
If the Order’s “Bloodcraft” is stolen magic, “inherited” through colonization, then “Rootcraft” is perhaps the purest form of magic that is shared, not given. This unifying approach to a system of magic that flies in the face of authoritarian principles is the key to Bree’s journey of self-discovery and more importantly, healing. Discovering its secrets is in many ways Bree’s “hero’s journey”, and at the end of this trip is understanding, forgiveness, power, and love. All great things.
Her spiritual guide, her teacher through this journey is Dr. Patricia Hartwood, a psychologist and graduate of UNC, who studied the same time as Bree’s mother, who she had only met a few times. Patricia goes on to explain “root magic” to Bree, the difference between “aether” and “root”, and those who put them into practice. She tells Bree that her mother in fact practiced “Wildcraft”, plant energy manipulation, which is a branch of “Rootcraft”, and that it passes from mother to daughter, down through the generations. In fact, for my money, the most dramatic and impactful scenes play out during Bree’s exploration of her familial roots, going back several generations. If “Bloodcraft” is the flash, then “Rootcraft” is the substance.
The quote above refers to one of most important differences between the two systems of magic and is at the crux of many of The Order’s problems. Like I said, “root magic” employs a give-and-take approach so that balance is maintained, “Bloodcraft”, does not.
“But we’ll acknowledge them. Thank them.”
Her first experience with “root” happens at a nearby graveyard on campus, where Patricia begins Bree’s awakening of the past. The graveyard is incredibly old, with the sins of the past not evident at first, and has accessible memories buried underneath hundreds of unmarked slave graves, for a price.
From there, with the help of Patricia and later a medium named Mariah, Bree taps into something that goes back several generations. She not only learns about her mother, but her mother’s mother, and her mother’s mother, and so on. And by doing so gets many of the answers she’s been seeking about not only her mother, but their unique abilities.
This is the connective tissue bringing all points together as it provides not only catharsis for an emotionally ill-stricken Bree, but the realization that she’s the sum of many parts, many generations. Black Southern folklore juxtaposes the Arthurian mythology only in fantasy, because as we know the horrific sins impressed upon the Black community are very, very real.
And Tracy presents this Black experience, both past and present, with a “no fucks left to give” attitude, and quite appropriately I might add. She paints a contemporary picture full of the subtle micro aggressive penchants of racism people of color experience every single day. But the truly heinous acts, images of the violent and detestable Black experience in early America, she saves for Bree’s ancestors during her journey back in time.
I really love and admire the fact that Tracy doesn’t temper her message despite the YA leanings of Legendborn. These magical pilgrimages back in time are so essential to Bree’s journey and the overall story; it would’ve felt less than if she didn’t go into the weeds.
“Don’t make your life about the loss. Make it about the love.”
At the crux of the story is Bree’s PTSD when it comes to the premature death of her mother, for obvious reasons if affected her greatly, even developing a psychosis of sorts, manufacturing a split-personality, "Before-Bree" and "After-Bree". Tracy's delicate and thoughtful examination of loss and grief, and the aftermath of trauma is a HUGE part of this book, and for more characters than just Bree, but that's a topic worthy of a completely separate article. Anyways, it's for these reasons that Chapter 42 is the most important as far as I’m concerned. Bree’s initial motivations for infiltrating The Order and learning about her “Bloodcraft”, centers on finding out the details surrounding her mother’s death and bringing those responsible to justice. But amidst this blind quest for accountability and revenge, and in a profoundly sad way, Bree has lost sight of who she is, and it’s heartbreaking.
You see, at the beginning, Bree isn’t so much feckless as she’s still reeling from her mother’s death. She’s built up walls that help her deal with everyday life, preventing her from finding healing, protection, and self-knowledge. It’s not until Patricia teaches her that, “…a person is more than their absence. That love is about more than loss” when she realizes that’s not the path to a happy life.
And perhaps more importantly, there’s a fairly large blind spot where the memory of her mother is concerned, with pain and loss supplanting the good times. So, after a very revealing and much-needed pep-talk from her father Edwin, where he echoes what Patricia said earlier, he gives Bree two items that belonged to her mother, a bible and a blue velvet box. She takes both back to her room where she opens the box in private after morning class.
For his part, Edwin pops in and out of the story, usually called upon to get Bree back on track or deliver a little parenting when needed. Besides her BFF/roommate Alice, he’s the most stable person in her life, and of course, also carries the heavy burden of the death of her mother, his wife.
This is where Chapter 42 begins, with Bree alone in her room opening the box, revealing her mother’s charm bracelet. By touching it, Bree unlocks a memory, a moment from her childhood that only SHE could access, a message from the past, a message from her mother. It's here Bree learns the truth about many things, including how much her mother loved her and wanted her to be happy and safe.
This revelation and shot of adrenaline provide Bree the closure she’s desperately been searching for, but more importantly, fills her heart and soul with the wherewithal she needs to “…move forward.” It’s the turning point in the novel, the moment where she begins to use her mother not as a means to an end, but as an inspiration to live a life well spent. Her protective walls come crumbling down and Bree becomes more powerful than she could ever imagine.
“They’ll be clean and gorgeous tomorrow, but the unexpected added time makes me groan.”
One final aspect I wanted to touch on briefly, something that relates to Bree and how she identifies as a strong Black woman, her hair.
The connection between a Black women’s hair, her identity, and its cultural and historical significance cannot be understated. As Ashleigh Williams says in her article…
“Black women use their hairstyles as a personal expression of who they are and to show the evolution of Black culture over time…”
Indeed, Bree’s relationship with her hair is pronounced throughout the book, with Tracy making mention of its state of being, Bree’s aversion to others touching it, and it being a shroud of strength. This is never truer than in Chapter 17, when after a rough go of things, Bree has just about reached the end of her rope physically, emotionally, and mentally. Here, Tracy delivers a very intimate scene where Bree takes the time to wash, rejuvenate, and go through her very lengthy and personal routine of “hair care” It’s a thoughtful examination of the power that a Black woman’s hair possesses, and that is part and parcel with the reclamation of a Black person’s cultural significance and power.
It’s not a vast scene, it’s small in comparison to most, but it is a thoughtful one nonetheless, and it really speaks to the character nuance of this book. Amidst the chaos of fighting demons, poignant looks at Black slavery in America, and historical reclamation, its these softer moments of self-reflection that I cherished the most. Everything means something in Legendborn, the sooner you realize that the better off you’ll be, especially when the comprehension side of your brain starts to take over the steering wheel.
So, what are we left with?
If you’ve read the book then you know I’ve barely scratched the surface here, choosing to only focus on a few key aspects of Tracy’s beautiful book. I’ve purposely left out many key facts and characters, so that you can experience this book unspoiled, it’s best that way.
So, if you haven’t read the book yet, then prepare yourself accordingly. There’s so much more to be discovered here and the ending, as I eluded to earlier, is a 10/10. So good that you’ll feel a slight tinge of disappointment not being able to pick right up where she leaves off. It’s a superb “To be continued…”
This story is entirely fluid, with things developing and changing at a rapid pace, and Bree is not immune to this protean behavior. She’s changing, evolving, learning, becoming something else entirely from the Bree we meet at the start, all except one important thing, her love. Love of family, love of her father, love of Alice, love of her mother. Those remain unchanged and it's that love that propels her forward, makes her strong.
I think it’s worth mentioning that Legendborn is of course a very entertaining work of fiction, no doubt about that. But it would be a disservice to not understand that what Tracy has also done is use her “own voice” to give credence to BIPOC, the LGBTQ+ community, and other marginalized groups. With all the strife happening out our front doors these days, reminding folks that representation on the page and behind it are vitally important issues right now. We have to support BIPOC and LGBTQ+ authors in all genres so that the world is full of more “Bree Mathews”, not less.
If you’re looking for more information on such things, it’s out there, all you have to do is look. But here’s a great place to start, check out this very recent and excellent article by author Kacen Callender!