After years of mostly sticking to adult fantasy, Legendborn is my second young adult book in the last five weeks (third if you count A Deadly Education, which sits somewhere between YA and dark fantasy), and if Tracy Deonn’s work is representative of the quality in YA fantasy, I’m going to have to read more. This one is excellent.
Legendborn stars Bree Matthews, a Black teenager from rural North Carolina who has enrolled in an Early College program at the University of North Carolina (UNC), partially because she and her best friend are huge nerds and partially in an attempt to escape the trauma of her mother’s recent death in a car accident. But it isn’t long after she arrives on campus before she stumbles upon a secret society of magic users that trace their ancestry all the way back to King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. And when she begins to suspect that this group may have had something to do with her mother’s death, she takes it upon herself to infiltrate the organization, find answers, and, if necessary, take revenge.
As I said, Legendborn is excellent. But it’s not excellent because it’s not like all the other YA novels—there are plenty of tropes here, from the absent parents (one dead, one separated by a four-hour drive and plenty of grief) to the impulsive decisions to the teenage cast that acts older than they are. Legendborn is excellent because it tells a remarkably layered story that deals with grief, racism, power, magic, friendship, and more, all the while presenting the tropes in a way that makes them both believable and compelling. There’s a lot going on, and it pretty much all works. Of course a girl who just lost her mother will be impulsive and erratic, of course a secret society of Southern elites with British ancestry will have a legacy of racism and abuse of power, and of course people who have been secretly training to fight demons since childhood will act differently than your average teenagers.
Bree is an excellent main character, active but not unstoppable, wounded but not defeated. She’s not always level-headed, but she’s also not stupid, and she genuinely cares about the people close to her. She’s surrounded by a remarkable number of fleshed-out secondary characters for a book coming in under 500 pages, and she delivers a first-person, present tense narration that imbues her story with a sense of immediacy and urgency. But what really hooked me was Bree pulling back the layers of history as she continued to dig for the truth about her mother and about magic. The handful of flashbacks we see are incredibly powerful and would make Legendborn a good read even if everything else were mediocre.
And everything else is not mediocre. There are a few small missteps—a bit of long-winded exposition of the society’s history in the early going, a couple sports references that were slightly off, and one of the antagonists that leans toward the mustache-twirling—but the action scenes were tense, the relationships felt real, and the plot consistently reached beyond the obvious moves. Being a YA novel, the themes here aren’t subtle, but they are both powerful and nuanced. There’s no magic bullet to processing the death of Bree’s mother, there’s no arch-villain responsible for all the prejudices and abuses of power, and the side characters all have their own ways of reckoning with the entanglements of history with the present.
Given how much Legendborn tackles, it brings a surprising number of plot arcs to satisfying stopping points, but it does leave a significant hook for a sequel. And honestly, given how much of this book’s greatness came from slowly unveiling more pieces of the puzzle, I’m a little worried that there’s not enough left to lift the sequel to the heights of the opener. But there’s more story to be told, and Tracy Deonn has earned more than a bit of trust with this one. When she releases book two, I’ll be here for it.
Highly recommended if you like: YA fantasy, books that explicitly tackle difficult subjects. Recommended as long as you don’t have an active aversion to either of those two things.
Overall rating: 18 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads.
P.S. On a personal note, it was a lot of fun recognizing so many elements of the setting. Having grown up in an obscure town in Southern Appalachia, I don’t recognize fictional settings too often, but I have been to the Waffle House on Franklin Street and have eaten my fair share of Bojangles biscuits.