REVIEW: Legendborn Reimagines the Roots of King Arthur’s Return

A dark-skinned girl with big beautiful black curls looks at the camera with red mage flame glowing on her arm

Revisiting Arthurian lore, Tracy Deonn introduces a young hero who will turn what the longstanding Order believes about the Roundtable’s descendants upside down in Legendborn.

Legendborn

Tracy Deonn
Margaret K. McElderry Books
Narrated by Joniece Abbott-Pratt
Simon & Schuster Audio
September 15, 2020

A dark-skinned girl with big beautiful black curls looks at the camera with red mage flame glowing on her arm

It’s easy to pick out the similarities between Legendborn and L.L. McKinney’s A Blade So Black series. Both feature a young Black woman dealing with tragic loss, and discovering an affinity for a magical world that they thought was only myth and legend. There are a few other similarities, but this isn’t mentioned as a complaint: I am 44 years old and cannot tell you how much my heart bursts to see beautiful young Black girls on the cover of these books, taking up space in my children’s imaginations in ways that I never had when I was growing up. And the similarities between the two series don’t detract from the unique stories they revisit with their fresh perspectives.

While A Blade So Black takes Alice into the rabbit hole of Wonderland, Legendborn’s lore of choice is Arthurian legend. Bree Matthews is a 16-year-old young woman who is trying to escape her mother’s violent and mysterious death in a vehicular accident by heading off to a prestigious school. Within her first day, she and her best friend wind up in trouble when they decide to attend an off-campus party where things turn awry. Bree witnesses a magical creature being dispatched by two older teenagers whom she comes to learn are Legendborn, as is the student mentor, Nick, who ends up assigned to her. Instead of helping Bree stay in line, per the dean and her father’s orders and expectations, Nick reluctantly brings her into the fold of the Order that he has been trying to free himself from. But when you’re a scion of the roundtable, and Shadowborn demons are threatening to bring on the Battle of Camlann, you can’t just walk away. Especially when you’ve got a very determined young woman seeking answers to her mother’s death that seem to lead right to the Order’s doorstep.

The Order prides itself on privilege and lineage, which makes Bree’s interjection into it a big problem for many of its members. Racism and classism hover over Bree’s shoulders, working hard to hold her back, as does her own ignorance of the Order’s ways and her ulterior motives.

Like other books I’ve read recently that feature young Black female protagonists, Bree’s love interest is white. It gives the author the opportunity to explore issues of bigotry, though Deonn doesn’t make this a heavy focal point of their relationship and discussions. For the most part, Bree addresses these issues on her own, which in itself serves as commentary on the privilege of her white love interest who genuinely offers his allyship, but isn’t around for some of the confrontations, or defers to her dismissal of how serious the issues of racism she faces are.

It certainly is possible to write an urban fantasy story featuring a Black protagonist without touching on bigotry, but such works, when written well, are more powerful when they acknowledge the reality. Here, Deonn uses her story to confront the generational trauma of racism and enslavement and uses the same to empower her character and enrich the Arthurian lore. Deonn does this by introducing rootcraft, the ancestral magic of enslaved people, which differs greatly from the magic of the Order in both form and purpose. What that means for Bree as the bridge between these worlds is significant.

Trauma, particularly related to mothers. is integral to the character development of several players in Legendborn. Bree has lost her mother from the start of the story, but, unlike Disney moms, her mother, even in death, has agency beyond haunting and fueling Bree’s motivations. It is through her mother that Bree eventually comes into her power.

As a young adult novel, Legendborn does check off a few of the typical characteristics. The most prominent of this list is the potential love triangle—though Selwyn Kane’s animosity doesn’t exactly endear him to Bree, any more than does his suspicion of her motives.

Sel’s antagonism, his dark and broody demeanor, his relationship with Nick, his role as the King’s Mage, and his abilities as the most powerful Merlin of his generation make for some tantalizing sparks along the way. As the plot thickens, Deonn doesn’t disappoint with the twists and turns that bring the trio together and pull them apart.

Where this book falters a bit for me is in its timing. All of the events that take place somehow all happen within the span of two weeks. And somewhere along the way, Bree manages to go to maybe two classes, which is fine I guess, since she conveniently is so smart that she doesn’t have to study. Her presence at the school is almost incidental, serving only to connect her with Nick and anchor her to a best friend whose role is quickly diminished when Bree’s focus shifts to her involvement with the Order. I don’t necessarily want the book to drag on, but the pacing would have benefited from some realism to fill out the pages in Bree’s planner.

As far as debut books go, Legendborn is solid. Beyond the gorgeous cover, I didn’t know what to expect from this book, but was extremely and pleasantly surprised to discover that it is based on King Arthur. From that discovery on, Legendborn proved to be an exhilarating ride—literally, since I listened to the audiobook in my car, expertly narrated by Joniece Abbott-Pratt. I often had a hard time getting out of my car when I reached my destination, and when I finally got to the end, I definitely wished it would keep going. Alas, I’ll just have to wait for the sequel.

Wendy Browne

Wendy Browne

Publisher, mother, geek, executive assistant sith, gamer, writer, lazy succubus, blogger, bibliophile. Not necessarily in that order.
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