Legendborn, Tracy Deonn (Simon Pulse 978-1-534-44160-6, $18.99, 512pp, hc) September 2020.
In Legendborn, an epic blend of Arthurian legend and Southern Black magical tradition, author Tracy Deonn incorporates the endless allure of collegiate secret societies with a lighter version of Hunger Games-esque battles (not to the death), and a cast of demons to give readers a big adventure that doesn’t stop until the final pages. (And even then it’s not an ending but a set-up for the sequel.) It’s about leaving home for the first time, trying to care about college, screwing up, uncovering a major mystery about your past, and… seeing demons while discovering that the cool kids on campus are descendants of the original Round Table. The truly unexpected hook in Legendborn is that the new knightly generation (very WASP-y) are not always so heroic, and protagonist Bree Mathews’s Southern Black heritage has an important story to tell that turns the narrative you expect completely on its ear.
Sixteen-year-old Bree has arrived at the University of North Carolina’s Early College program on the heels of her mother’s tragic death in a car accident. Leaving behind a loving father, she and her best friend are ready for classes but quickly fall for a university tradition that gets them caught by the cops in the wrong place at the wrong time. Bree is furious by the racism the officer can barely conceal (which is later echoed by college administration) but she’s even more worried about what she saw before the law arrived. It appeared that a couple of the school’s more popular students were engaged in battle against something not of this world and, even worse, they worked some kind of magic on several of the students to make them forget what they saw. But Bree remembers, and now she wants to know just what the heck is going on.
Revealing too much about Legendborn‘s narrative would give away vital clues as to its breakneck plot, but suffice to say Deonn has poured a lot of effort into the novel’s worldbuilding and takes readers through a tale of Merlins and Pages, Scions and Squires, Shadowborn and Legendborn, and a healthy dose of hellish creatures (hellhounds, hellfoxes… you get the idea). There are also college classes to attend, a loving father to reassure, a best friend who doesn’t believe all those bruises are “no big deal,” a budding romance to tend to, and the very big surprise that her new counselor reveals about Bree’s deceased mother. While all the exposition can bog things down in the early chapters, especially as Bree moves from one encounter after another with someone who helpfully explains a critical new detail, there is still plenty of action to keep things rolling. More importantly, though, there is the way Deonn veers from expectations by not making the story all about Arthur and his knights. Her inclusion of fantasy elements that draw on the history of colonialism and slavery, and demand a reckoning with the casual violence of so much of the knightly mythology, is compelling. Bree finds herself caught between living legends that no one could resist and a far more significant truth that suggests a path to learning more about her own ancestors. Faced with a stark choice about what to do (and whom to believe), Bree must dance through a staggering number of plot twists that dial up the tension. Altogether, Deonn brings everything readers could want in an immersive southern fantasy that manages to slay and inspire at every turn.
Colleen Mondor, Contributing Editor, is a writer, historian, and reviewer who co-owns an aircraft leasing company with her husband. She is the author of “The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska” and reviews regularly for the ALA’s Booklist. Currently at work on a book about the 1932 Mt. McKinley Cosmic Ray Expedition, she and her family reside in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. More info can be found on her website: www.colleenmondor.com.
This review and more like it in the March 2021 issue of Locus.
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