This was the group book for the #mythothon readathon that’s running throughout the month of April. I had seen this cover around, many people have recommended the book and I think it might even end up on a Lodestar shortlist (we’ll find out soon!). I’m not super excited about King Arthur retellings, but as this book focuses on other things, that turned out to be a plus for me.
by Tracy Deonn
Published: Margaret K. McElderberry, 2020
eBook: 512 pages
Audiobook: 18 hours 54 minutes
Series: Legendborn #1
My rating: 6.5/10
Opening line: The police officer’s body goes blurry, then sharpens again.
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.
Bree Matthews is a young Black student who gets to go to UNC-Chapel Hill in an Early College program. Her very first night on campus turns out to be rather exciting, not because of some student party (although there is that) but because she witnesses things that shouldn’t be possible. Selwin Kane, a young and decidedly too handsome student, seems to be wiping people’s memories. Oh and let’s not forget that shimmery magical demon-thing that tries to attack people and is shot down by another student’s arrow – because who doesn’t carry bow and arrow with them when they go to a party? Needless to say, it’s all a bit much for Bree.
Add to this craziness that her mother died only a few months earlier, she seems to be the only Black girl on campus, and even her best friend notices that she hasn’t been the same since her mom’s death.
This novel was not what I expected. Sure, on the surface it’s your very average YA demon hunting secret society book (Clare’s Shadowhunters come to mind, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer when we’re looking at TV). Sure, the secret society is based on the legend of King Arthur, which is new (at least to me), but if that had been all this story was about, I would have been mostly bored and unimpressed. But Tracy Deonn is a Black writer who put a lot of her own experience into this book and it shows.
Not only does Bree deal with the most casual and blatant racism you can imagine, she’s also dealing with grief. Except she doesn’t know how to deal with it and that makes her feel incredibly real and lovable. These were my two favorite aspects of Legendborn but it takes a while to get there. The racism is there right from the start but Tracy Deonn doesn’t just show us the way the university’s dean or a random cop assume things about Bree based on nothing but the color of her skin, she goes much further, exploring the past and the history of the college. Whether it’s a slave owner’s statue that’s standing right there on campus or Bree’s family history, I loved how we got to see different aspects of the Black experience. That sounds strange because, as you can probably imagine, that experience isn’t exactly a nice one, but I hope you know what I mean. It fleshed out the world and gave the characters more depth, it made everything feel a bit more real.
My second favorite part – the way loss and grief is talked about and handled – didn’t appeal to me immediately. In fact, at the very start of the book, I must have missed somehow that Bree’s mother’s death wasn’t all that long ago. I was a bit surprised that Bree kept thinking about herself as a numb person who shuts out all emotions because she was After-Bree and her mother’s death had impacted her so much. I’m sure it was inattention on my part, but I kind of thought her mother had been dead for several years, so I didn’t get why the pain still felt so raw to her.
But I got it after a while and that’s when I started appreciating how Deonn described Bree’s pain and the way she tries to handle it – by shutting it out mostly. Although no person feels the same when they lose someone, I did understand Bree. And there was a moment in the last third of the book that managed to make me cry.
But this book isn’t only some exploration of difficult themes, quite the opposite. On a surface level, it’s an adventure Urban Fantasy story about demon hunters and magic. Plus, the obligatory teen romance.
The whole secret society of the Order was probably the weakest aspect of this book. The society is comprised of people who can trace their bloodlines back to King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. One special person is “the Merlin” and he can use magic like nobody else. Other than hunting and killing the demons that occasionally invade our world, these people do what most other secret societies do. They make sure they have the power and keep it, they hate outsiders, they’re mostly racist and classist, and they live by strict rules that includes oaths and use of magic and a lot of other stuff.
My problem with it was that this particular Order could have been based on anything other than King Arthur and it still would have worked. Sure, each knight’s Scion is granted some special abilities based on what the original knight was like but that doesn’t really have any impact on the plot. Don’t get me wrong, it was still fun to learn about how the Order works, it just doesn’t have much to do with the legend of King Arthur other than the names and/or titles. So depending on what you’re looking for when you pick up this book, you might be in for a disappointment.
I don’t have too much more to say about this book. I enjoyed the characters, although the side characters could definitely be more fleshed-out. Bree was a fantastic protagonist, some of the other more important characters also felt believable and three-dimensional, but the side characters were mostly cardboard cutouts who only existed to further the plot whenever needed.
The plot wasn’t as twisty as I was led to believe by other reviewers, but there are a couple of good surprises in there. I didn’t see either of them coming at all, and that’s exactly how I like it. The main antagonist of this book was a bit on the nose. This moustache-twirling one-track-mind baddie could have been done better, but as this is only book one in a trilogy/series, the true villain is still afoot. Maybe they’ll have a bit more to offer.
The writing was enjoyable and the book was quick to read. The ending almost felt a bit too rounded off. Sure, there are some questions left open, I see a love triangle coming up (hopefully, I’m wrong), and there’s still evil to fight. But this part of the story is done, we get a satisfying conclusion and I am quite happy with how things ended. I don’t see myself jumping on the second part of this series but I absolutely want to read more by Tracy Deonn.
MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Good