2020’s Legendborn is the first volume in Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn Cycle.
Teenager Bree Matthews tells her mother some unsettling news: Bree covertly applied for and won a spot in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Early College Program. Bree’s mother is incensed at hearing this (even though UNC was the mother’s alma mater) and a fierce argument ensues. Mother and daughter never reconcile. Soon after the argument, Bree learns that her mother has died in a hit-and-run auto accident.
Life goes on. Bree arrives at UNC-Chapel Hill.
There are any number of distractions Bree could use to distract her from her grief. Almost all of them are on the proscribed list of activities for Early College Program participants. These rules are strictly enforced. Bree soon discovers that as a black student at a traditionally white university, not only will her transgressions attract immediate official response, it’s not necessary for Bree to have actually done anything to be punished for it.
Peer mentor Nick is assigned to assist Bree to conform to regulations, a development about which Bree is unenthusiastic. Life with Nick proves more interesting than anticipated: a monster attacks and Nick kills it with a sword of the sort one doesn’t necessarily expect a college student to have. Immediately after the attack, associates of Nick’s erase Bree’s memory of the incident, making it as though it never happened.
Except! For reasons that will only become clear later, Bree is effectively immune to memory-altering magic. She shakes off the amnesia and remembers everything. Not only that, but Bree remembers details about the night her mother died, details that suggest the same sort of memory magic was used on Bree and her father that night. Was her mother murdered?
Convinced there could be a connection between her mother’s death and the organization with which Nick is involved, Bree inveigles her way into the secret society. She finds herself eyeball-deep in an Arthurian conspiracy, a secret army of mages and warriors who have been fighting demons on humanity’s behalf since the sixth century. Although the society is not notably welcoming to newcomers, Nick is able to convince them to accept Bree; another war with demonkind is coming and every army needs expendable troops.
Obligatory Arthurian fantasy disclaimer: due to a certain project a few short decades ago that required me to immerse myself in Arthuriana, I am not the most receptive audience for new Arthurian tales. Add a star or two to my rating.
The legacy of chattel slavery is an intrinsic part of the novel. Readers whose impression of slavery was shaped by works like Gone With the Wind will probably not enjoy certain aspects of this novel. Slavers do not come off well and the excuses their descendants give are unconvincing.
The Legendborn have their roots in King Arthur’s round table. Modern readers may wonder how well a secret society following a fifteen century-old playbook functions in modern society. The answer: sometimes very poorly and sometimes very well.
On the very poorly side, I should note that it would not be inaccurate to call the Legendborn a collection of blinkered bigots. They tend to regard all magical traditions other than their own as possibly demonic, something that is clearly untrue. They regard everyone outside their group as lesser beings, also untrue. Their views on gender equality are straight out of the dark ages (literally). When slavery was legal, they owned slaves (with consequences they clearly failed to foresee1). They also tend to mistake their own personal goals with concern for the greater good, a failing that drives much of the plot.
To be fair, one must note that as reprehensible as many of their views are, they aren’t all that out of step with views shared by many of the inhabitants of North Carolina in particular and our modern world in general.
On the very well side: They do have very real powers, powers magical and martial. They fight demons. They might be more effective if they could work with other magical traditions, but since humanity hasn’t been eaten by demons (yet), presumably they’re doing a good enough job2.
Bree’s entry into such a society is bound to change it. Change is not welcome.
I found the book a bit long, which may be just me; as I have previously complained, I’ve noticed that my attention span is decreasing. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it. Bree is a sympathetic character and I was rooting for her. I should perhaps mention that due to a 1997 project that did not end well, I am to this day somewhat averse to reading Arthuriana. Despite this caveat, I enjoyed Legendborn.
Readers clearly loved the work; Legendborn won both a Coretta Scott King – John Steptoe Award for New Talent and an Ignite.
I should however add that Volume One ends on something of a cliffhanger. Good news: Volume Two, Bloodmarked, is out so picking up both is an option.
1: The slavery-related issue that still bedevils the Legendborn is one that invites comparison to an earlier classic of science fiction … but to name it would spoil the surprise.
2: Perhaps the demon-fighting job doesn’t need doing. I can see why demon fighters might be hesitant to test that.