There was definitely a span of adolescent years during which I was obsessed with Arthuriana. I remember borrowing Malory’s Morte d'Arthur from my library multiple times despite being way too young to pick my way through the Middle English prose. I devoured all sorts of retellings and reimaginings, like Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord series. So when this series crossed my Twitter feed one day, I couldn’t not windmill-slam the “place hold” button on both Legendborn and its sequel. Tracy Deonn effectively borrows from Arthurian legend, reshaping it, adding elements of West African and Caribbean folklore and tradition, to create a compelling world and tell a story that packs all kinds of punches.
Bree Matthews is 16 years old but has been admitted to the “Early College” program at UNC–Chapel Hill. She is grieving the loss of her mother in a car crash, and she isn’t feeling very grounded. Soon after the start of the school year, Bree gets caught up in an on-campus club of sorts that seems to be playing at being a secret society—except that Bree quickly discovers there’s definitely something supernatural at play, and it might be connected to her mother’s death. Determined to play detective, Bree infiltrates this society and gets closer to one of its highest-ranking members, who also has his reasons to support her entrance. But enemies lurk in every corner: can Bree get to the bottom of her mother’s death without falling victim to the Shadowborn or those who defend against them?
Legendborn is very much a YA novel, and I mean that as a compliment. It is exactly the kind of YA novel I would have loved to read as a teenager—and to be clear, I also loved reading it now as a thirty-something woman, but there is a special joy that I experienced digging into these thick, often fantasy, YA novels when I was in my adolescence. Deonn deploys many of the best (in my opinion) tropes of YA. Bree must undergo trials to initiate herself into the Order. There’s a clear ranking system (and there’s even a little org chart at the back of the book!) and some other rules that get explained along the way, though ultimately they don’t seem that important to the overall story. There is, yes, the will-they-or-won’t-they romance subplot. There’s a best friend who sticks up for Bree even when maybe they shouldn’t. Basically, this book is YA catnip in the best possible way.
Beneath all these familiar trappings however beats the heart of a story that is much deeper and more emotional than you might first expect. Bree is a Black girl growing up in the American South, and Deonn—also Black and from North Carolina—weaves this setting and Bree’s heritage into the fabric of the story. The Order’s origins in Europe, its presence here in North Carolina, its involvement in the powerful institutions of past and present—all of it is grounded in an awareness of colonialism and the history of enslavement of African peoples. Bree’s own abilities are connected to the earth, to her ancestors, and the metaphysical journey of self-discovery upon which she embarks pits Indigenous epistemologies against colonial ones. Echoes of Butler and Delany reverberate as Deonn anchors her magic systems and the central conflict of this book in the rich yet bloody history of the American South.
Meanwhile, Bree personally is dealing with a lot of grief. I love how her understanding of the events that unfolded the night of her mother’s death evolves as the story itself goes on. The new information that comes to light, the way it changes how Bree sees the Order and even herself, is fantastic. It just goes to demonstrate how easy it is to latch on to a convenient theory that seems to fit all the available facts only for new facts to entirely upend that theory in favour of something less comfortable.
Similarly, I enjoyed how Bree’s enmity with Selwyn evolves as they spend more time in each other’s company. He begins the story as a one-dimensional antagonist within the Order and Bree’s life, yet they reach a kind of detente fuelled by their unlikely common interests. In the same way, the events that drive the climax of the story completely rewrite the hierarchy of the Order and Bree’s place in it, leaving some of Bree’s initial allies—or at least, people disposed to be friendly towards her—uncertain of how they feel towards her now.
Deonn has a talent for keeping the story moving, for upsetting existing character dynamics and relationships, and for dropping you into an action scene without much warning. I have very few notes regarding the worldbuilding or the plot itself. My main disappointment hinges around how Bree eventually ends up communing with an ancestor and the way that this fact feels overshadowed by the intensity of the final act’s action sequences. Similarly, the revelations of the ending leave a lot of questions—and while this is obviously meant to be the first book in a series, people who dislike the feeling of a first book as a setup volume might feel disappointed by this. Finally, I take issue with some of the timeline and the rather cavalier way Deonn accelerates things—including healing of injuries—apparently only for reasons of plot. I didn’t need this book to take place over the span of the entire school year, but if I’m remembering correctly (I finished the book over a week ago), it mainly takes place over the first two months of school—but a lot happens!
Anyway, I am very glad I borrowed Bloodmarked at the same time and can’t wait to read it soon. This is an excellent start to a new fantasy series with just enough familiarity to be comfortable even as it challenges and perhaps makes you feel a little discomfort over the colonial underpinnings of many of our favourite legends and ideas.