Legendborn by Tracy Deonn
Rating: 5 stars
A hardcover copy of Legendborn sits on the outer wall of a small wooden well in the woods.
"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."
A lot of people recommended this book on Instagram but, since I often ignore hype around books in case it's overrated, I didn't start reading it until this month. I regret waiting so long.
Legendborn is a subversive fantasy book. Deonn meticulously connects her fascination with Arthurian legends, knowledge of UNC-Chapel Hill's history, African American history, spiritual traditions (rootwork), and her lived experiences with grief, anger, and Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder (PCBD) in this young adult book. There is so much power in it.
When I began reading Legendborn, the pain of the story made it hard for me to fully let myself live within it. I have been dealing with grief from losing both of my maternal grandparents within the past year. I felt like they connected me to my roots and ancestors, so far, unknown. Once I allowed myself to let the story wash over me, I was able to enjoy it. About 1/3 of the way into the book, I felt connected to it.
"To be able to trace one's family back that far is something I have never fathomed...Where is our Wall? A Wall that doesn't make me feel lost, but found...Instead of awe, I feel...cheated."
Bree's involvement in the Order worried me for a few reasons. Would this book be focused on European magic like most YA Fantasy? Do readers only like this book because the Black lead is still predominately interacting with a white magical realm? I hoped that Legendborn would be validating to Black and African-American folx. It is. Once Deonn introduced rootcraft and more of Bree's ancestral stories, I felt relief and comfort. I'd always wanted to be connected to tales of magic when I was younger and this book gave that to me, just like Children of Blood and Bone did and just like Witches Steeped in Gold did.
I love that our magic comes from our ancestors, a sort of ancestral gift or memory, in these books. The idea that folks could simply be born with or without magic used to appeal to me but I've grown to find it lacking in depth. Why do some have magic and some don't? How exactly did their families get it? What is the point of it? To do quick charms for everyday things? Magic within these books has more of a purpose. Rootcraft is directly tied to nature and our ancestors. One cannot take without giving and opening oneself up to ancestral memory.
Something else I've noticed about the newer Fantasy books by Black women authors, specifically, is how they allow us to be vulnerable AND angry without those things becoming our downfall. In the real world, it feels as though being angry and vulnerable are too dangerous. In Legendborn, Bree's anger can be dangerous, but it is also a gift. It is pent up from years of ancestral trauma and resilience. She is not demonized for it in the way that many Black folx are. There's no tone police. Bree has space to express her grief, exhaustion, disappointment, and learns to channel her fury into power.
Deonn wrote a book that will sit with me for some time. I anticipate wanting to reread this book and the one(s) that follow whenever I want to escape and feel validated. Although the topics addressed within it are heavy, it left me feeling empowered rather than drained. She addresses a common feeling of pain, frustration, and loneliness that many African Americans have felt in this country due to the constant erasure and invalidation of our experiences, contributions, and resilience despite being oppressed.
I recommend this book to everyone. Whether you are a fan of Fantasy or not, Legendborn is a hit. It may be most appropriate for kids from 5th grade and up, but may be just fine for younger children with emotional maturity or experience with grief.
While I don't think every Fantasy book has to be compared to Harry Potter, I will say that one of my first thoughts once I finished Legendborn was that J.K. Rowling cannot compete with Tracy Deonn's depth. I felt a flash of the same excitement that I felt while reading Harry Potter as a child but this time it feels closer and more intimate.
Thank you to everyone who recommended this book and brought it to the forefront. I'm gonna be talking about it until the next one comes out!