Legendborn, by Tracy Deonn, is a YA Fantasy book, the first in a series. I listened to the Audible version and I’ll have a note on that at the end of the review – I’ll focus on the story and the writing first here. There was a lot of hype around this book on various Bookstagram and other social media reader accounts I follow. Unlike many things on social media, this one totally lived up to that hype. (This is also book 7/20 in my #20booksofsummer challenge.)
Plot Synopsis from Goodreads: 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.
While this book seems to revisit many of the current YA Fantasy tropes, it also completely blows some of them out of the water with it’s unique mix of magical systems, characters and creative retelling of stories we thought we knew. Set on the campus of UNC Chapel Hill and featuring a Black heroine, Deonn is able to create a unique mix of ancient legends from different cultures and give them an updated twist that also looks at racism and feminism issues without flinching. The Legendborn follow the Arthurian code, but Bree’s family history has nothing in common with the centuries of knowledge the privileged Legendborn have behind them. Bree, in fact, knows very little about her family history – her mother has recently died in a car accident and her mother’s mother died early too. She’s a great heroine – curious, smart, willing to stand up for herself and her friends – but one who is also bruised and heartsick from losing her mother and not really sure who she is.
The supporting cast of characters each have their own distinct personalities and I appreciated that the author included not only the sort of traditional leading men in Nick and Sel (the Legendborn’s Merlin/king’s mage) we normally see, but also LGBTQ characters, including Bree’s BFF, Alice, who also is her roommate at UNC, and several of the scions and pages who are members of the Legendborn group. I also appreciated the addition of Bree’s father into key moments in the story, since not all YA books really feature parents at all. He’s obviously a parent who loves her and wants only the best for her, even if he doesn’t always understand her.
One of the things that you hear all the time is that authors should write what they know about. It’s obvious from the descriptions of places on the UNC campus, as well as the lengthy (and ongoing) history of race relations in North Carolina, that the author (who is herself a POC) knows both of those things intimately. Beyond that, however, (because who really “knows” what a hell-hound made of ether looks like?), her descriptions of the fantastical demons who have crossed into our plane of reality brought all those creepy things to life. Her warrior training and battle descriptions were perfectly crafted to give us a slow ramp-up of the action as more and more demons passed into corporeality and attacked the Legendborn. I loved that she kept Bree real and down-to-earth. Yes, she’s a teenager in good shape from track and field but she has NO idea how to wield a broadsword or dagger (why would she?) and that she worked hard, tried hard, but ultimately wasn’t perfect. A big win for me as well was the seamless combining of the legends of Arthur and his knights of the round table with much, much less well-known traditional Root Craft stories and traditions from Bree’s Black ancestry.
So this one was a major win for me. I’m giving it 4-1/2 out of 5 stars for all of the above reasons. I can’t wait for more in this series!
And now a note about the audiobook. I honestly wasn’t sure I could finish listening to this one. If the story itself hadn’t been so great, I probably wouldn’t have finished it. I was impressed the narrator handled the Welsh words so easily but anytime the action got a bit tense or Bree was even a bit emotional, it sounded like the narrator was going to start hiccuping and crying. Oddly, in listening to the narrator read the closing credits, I actually LIKED her voice. Just her normal speaking voice used to carry the story would have been wonderful. I just felt she did a disservice to Bree, who, while going through difficult and emotionally wrenching moments, was a much stronger character by her words and deeds than the narrator’s voice indicated. If this sounds like your kind of read, pick up a print copy.