‘Legendborn’ Review: Even When Magic Exists, You May Still be the Only Black Girl in the Room

Daring Debut that is A Fresh Take on the Arthurian Tale, Lovingly Flavored with Southern Flair

What a Way to Open

Tracey Deonn’s Legendborn opens to death. Black Death. Sixteen year-old Bree Matthews is stunned by the news that her beloved mother has left this earthly plane of existence tragically, by way of a car accident. She can recall feeling like the world has stopped, for her, it has as she sits in the hospital with her father trying to process this new world. This new world without her mother. It is a perhaps a risky way to start a novel and a heartbreaking circumstance in which to introduce our protagonist Bree, who is attempting to move forward while trying to forget who she was before this tragedy. 

I want to paraphrase a quote that in my heart I want to attribute to Jason Reynolds or Jacquline Woodson (Heaven help and forgive me if it is neither one of them!) :  “When I start writing, I begin with a trauma and work through 200 pages of getting to the heart of it to bring  healing.” I thought of these words as I pressed forward and thought of the bigger picture. I thought of how this tragic event had an interesting event towards the end of this soul compressing event at the hospital: Bree, on this night saw a bit of magic.

On a night when her world was ending, she was seeing a bit of what would shape her life in the world to come, this new world without her mother–this new world of figuring out who she is now, this new normalcy. It is a situation that so many of us are finding ourselves in now, and Bree’s story comes at a relevant time when every day the world seems to be ending. 

A riskier move, in my opinion? To take a beloved literature fixture like the story of King Arthur, Merlin, and the Knights of the Roundtable and plate it for a newer audience in a modern world. Praytell beloved, …and the payoff? A debut that I will be talking about for years and years to come. (Trigger Warnings include: Death of a parent and traumatic grief/flashbacks, racist macro and microaggression. Read full list here.)

 Brianna Irene Matthews aka Bree leaves home to attend an early college type program at the university of her dreams. She’s still raw, still grieving and attempting to do the whole college experience with her best friend Alice–the only person from back home who sees her as the person she is now. A version of herself that is trying but lost without much of a paddle to navigate the waters…sometimes rocky, sometimes calm. It is here at the place of her mother’s college days that Bree finds more magic, more mysteries, and more about herself that she’d never imagined she would find. Stumbling upon a secret society, an ancient order tasked with protecting humankind, she finds the Order of The Round Table. The last descendants of King Arthur and his loyal knights all young people, her age, who have a safehold here and have protected society from Shadowborne, demons who would wipe out life here as we know.

Bree’s Wide (Magical) World

Perhaps one of my favorite aspects of this novel is the world building.  We have here this fleshed out, realized world that is one that I, as a reader can imagine myself in. This is the world with cars and modern architecture and where the internet all exists. It is also a world where weapons and armour can materialize at the drop of a hat, where healing properties can be grabbed out of the air, invisible to the sight of a normal human being–Oncebornes.  And foul creatures from the other side that seek to create harm and chaos. 

It is also a world where Bree lives and finds herself a child of two worlds. Again, a struggle that is relevant and timely as so many Black folks feel like second class citizens in whatever country they live in, and furthermore, how so many of us feel as if we are living through two different pandemics here in 2020. First and foremost, she’s a Black teen girl who knows that her skin and gender will make others actively work in dismissing, harassing, belittling, and attempting to erase her. Point blank, it makes her a target–to be treated differently. To endure silently the sly comments from school deans. To have to sit in a police car when her white classmates are told simply to return to campus. To be sized up in the worst way in the eyes of young men who only see her Black body as a means to an end.

“Beloved, we aren’t thrown into a world where magic exists and microaggressions don’t.”

Beloved, as readers, we aren’t thrown into a world where magic exists and microaggressions don’t. We are not thrown into a world where a Black girl is not aware that the many great institutions we uphold were built on the backs of people who look like her.  It would be unrealistic if Deonn penned this adventure this way and for that I am grateful. For Bree, it already wasn’t uncommon to find herself as the only person in the room with her features, her hair type, her shared life experiences. 

Bree’s in the Room Where it Happens

When things pop off, she further finds herself amongst this secret society of young folks called to a greater purpose–and once again she’s the only person in the room.  In truth, most of the family lines of the folks in this society, these warriors are white, come from money and power, and come from places that Bree ain’t. This narrative thread about legacies and how left out Bree feels in more ways than one is felt again and again and impressively built on. Bree is a grieving young woman, questioning family, and family ties as hers is a broken one with the death of her mother. She sees folks like Nick and Sel, young men who are tied to duty through their family ties and is further dragged into this world she never knew existed. Sel and Nick, young men who are like night and day–polar opposites–Bree finds herself pulled to them–and for good reason. Their destinies are tied together in this epic tale–part coming of age, part homecoming. Throw in much drama, much romantic tension, a great supporting cast of folks that kept surprising me.

One of the parts of this reading experience of Legendborn? It is that I never forget that Bree aka Brianna Irene Matthews is a Black girl, like I once was. I’ve read so much fiction with Black folks as protagonists where the skin color of the protagonist is mentioned a few times, maybe the curl of their hair gets a line or two. Maybe how their locs sit on their shoulders is featured in a throwaway paragraph. But the glaring problem of how they navigate their world isn’t always sincere or one that ultimately, remains flat. When Bree is upset when someone who is an ally reaches out and touches her hair without her permission–I felt that. Even if I couldn’t relate to that ally being a page in a secret order who had been training to fight evil demons from childhood. When men, young and old insinuate, she’s gotten to where is now not because of her intelligence or skill but because of trickery or “using feminine wiles” –I try to control my rage. I, too, know this.

Bree is most certainly a hero that we’ve been waiting for. In the current wave of diverse YA titles making their way to shore, in Legendborn she is one of the new leaders of the pack. Seeing Black girls and women in fiction, in speculative fiction, in fantasy is always a treat.  And in recent years, it has thankfully become easier to visit a store and see someone who looks like me on the shelves, on display, featured on the website–yet it an even greater victory to read Bree’s story and see a fleshed-out, complicated, endearing narrative of a Black girl that I not only want to root for but see pieces of myself in. It is a greater victory to see that Bree is written by Black hands with a glorious cover illustration also by a Black woman. She’s a smartass–her banter throughout the book is gold. For a black girl who very easily falls into the ‘difficult to love’ category at times–it is refreshing and affirming to see her on display as someone very few really believe she is worthy–time and time again and eventually getting the landing right.

“Legendborn is a resounding, defining example of why I love YA and why continue to read the genre.”

Throughout the fantasy genre, we see protagonists, especially children and teens without parents, without many mothers and fathers around. It is not uncommon to see the chosen ones running about as orphans or missing a parent–And in too many beloved stories and franchises mothers have a very obvious and depressing absence. Now writing this review, I see how this could be the book’s greatest criticism. And while Legendborn perhaps doesn’t fully subvert this trope, the author manages to effectively and brilliantly craft a story about a motherless child getting the chance to have a piece of her mother, again. Without heading into spoiler territory: this is the tale of a Black girl who gets to reclaim her mother–and her mother before her in a moving story about taking everything you are and everything you have–being your ancestor’s wildest dream and becoming the hero you need to be.

Bree’s Story is One We Deserve

Bree’s story is equal parts one of grief and discovery that joins self-discovery and learning about the mother she never knew which starts to intertwine with the mother she knew and the women before them. Tying this together is the fact that in real life, author Tracey Deonn lost her mother as a young adult. And Deonn’s mother lost her mother as well around the same age. And the pair of women before them. It was a pattern that the author found, realized and that interest in her family and the story of what could be helped birth Legendborn. With a love of literature and of storytelling, Deonn pondered on death and legacy–In her own words: “…In a society, whose deaths get celebrated? What does it mean to leave a legacy? To carry one?”

In the introduction of the brilliant book, The Dark Fantastic: Race and The Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games by Dr. Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, the writer and educator brings up the topic of magic. On how she was born into a Black family in the 70’s after the Civil Rights Era, her mother tried her best to keep her daughter grounded. “My mother was doing me a favor by letting me know that magic was inaccessible to me. The real world held enough trouble for young Black girls, so there was no need for me to go on a quest to seek it.” Thankfully the author’s life work has been partially to prove her mother wrong as the author is an expert of diversity in children’s literature, youth media, and fan studies who has asserted that “we dark girls deserve more, because we are more.” 

With Dr. Thomas’s operating words in mind–I love that Legendborn exists. And more so I love that it exists as Black girls like Bree, and the author Tracey Deonn can exist in spaces where traditionally they were not always welcomed and recognized. As a work of fiction, Bree Matthews is a hero on the cover of a book on an adventure in which she is a major player. Written with love by a Black woman who was once a Black girl who inspired and influenced much of what makes her a character that I go hard in the paint for. The boldness and daring of creating Bree and placing her on the page is one act and for author Deonn to create a world and a narrative that includes her and make it a heart-pounding, thought-provoking, and exciting read. This a book I’m going to reread for years to come.

“Bree is most certainly a hero that we have been waiting for.”

A tagline I found for the book is “Legacies are made to be broken”–all the twists and turns that I couldn’t predict stunned me. I tend to think that all stories are connected–across time and space and generations. Deonn’s work here reminds me that we are all a part of histories, of legacies that have terrible parts of them–with trauma and violence, with tears and injustices that sometimes never make it to the pages of history books. We all have folks who came before us whose lives don’t get recognized, acknowledged, or celebrated. Legendborn reminds me that we all possess the power to be more, to stick out of the crowd, to be worthy of a grand tale: to be legendary. This debut novel from Tracey Deonn is a daring move that is a fresh take on the Arthurian story, centering a Black girl written with love that I’m betting will be loved as the years go by.

Tracy Deonn is a writer and second-generation fangirl. She grew up in central North Carolina, where she devoured fantasy books and Southern food in equal measure. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in communication and performance studies from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Tracy worked in live theater, video game production, and K–12 education. When she’s not writing, Tracy speaks on panels at science fiction and fantasy conventions, reads fanfic, arranges puppy playdates, and keeps an eye out for ginger-flavored everything. See more of her on her personal website, on Twitter, and Instagram!

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  • Carrie McClain is writer, editor and media scholar. Other times she's known as a Starfleet Communications Officer, Comics Auntie, and Golden Saucer Frequenter. Nowadays you can usually find her avoiding Truck-kun and forgetting her magical girl transformation device. She/Her

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