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.
The Legend of King Arthur is embedded in modern fantasy, with countless movie adaptations and books that try to take the well-known story and give it a new spin. Legendborn has to be one of the most imaginative re-tellings of the Arthurian legend. In this modern setting, Tracy Deonn manages to bring forth the essence of the legend while also expanding on it, bringing it into the 21st century. Deonn breathes new life into the trope with such consideration for the myth, while also examining some brutal truths about society and weaving the myth into history and just telling a brilliant YA fantasy story.
There is a lot I could mention about Legendborn; there’s a fascinating magic system (or systems, but I won’t say more), there is a secret society with its own mythos and social structure, there’s a mystery at the heart of this book that drives Bree’s motivation and her character arc. Each of these elements were expertly woven together, with twists and turns that were shocking but didn’t feel unearned. There is also a surprising amount of Welsh for a book set in the South of the US, but it only made the worldbuilding feel more real.
The relationships, especially the friendships and familial relationships, are another strong suit in this book. Bree has Alice, her childhood friend turned college roommate who looks out for her at every turn, and her relationship to her father was really touching. She meets Nick, the “golden boy” with a big heart that immediately wants to help her. Her antagonistic relationship with Sel, the Merlin at UNC was another delight to read as they danced around their dislike of one another and they realised they might be more similar than they expected.
All of this made for a great read, but what really brought home the strength of Deonn’s writing was something else entirely. Underneath the magic and demons and the mystery of it all, this is the story of Bree, a girl who has had her life ripped apart by the death of her mother. It’s about coming to terms with that loss, and the author really knows how to hit you with incredible and devastating descriptions of grief.
“This used to happen at home. In the weeks after my mom died, I’d manage the first step of some mundane task — get naked and into the shower, open the fridge and set out the deli meat, dump a load of laundry into the washing machine — and the next step would elude me. Like an old mill, my mind would wheel around and around until it picked up the next directive.”
Another point I would highlight is that this book is written from the point of view of a Black teenager in the South, and it doesn’t skirt away from revealing the parts of life in the US which affect the Black community. Deonn manages to blend this Arthurian society, the history of the past centuries, colonialism, and slavery in a fascinating way, and it shows an impressive depth of worldbuilding on the author’s part. Some of the most powerful moments in the book come from intersections between all these aspects of Bree’s life, and it only serves to make her growth more profound.
Not to say that this book is without flaw; the main romantic relationship was not particularly well-developed and at times, the intricacies of the Legendborn secret society were just not explained well enough for me to follow along with who was Squire to who, and which Bloodline lived in which character, but it didn’t detract much from my overall enjoyment of the book. The heart of the book, Bree’s grief and her growing through it was more than enough to overshadow these small parts of the story. It is definitely a book that has stuck with me since I read it, and I am excited to read the next installment in the series.