To be able to trace one’s family back that far is something I have never fathomed. My family only knows back to the generation after Emancipation.
It is truly impossible to look at Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn in a way that does not elucidate race and generational trauma in an incredibly unique way. The depths to which this story demonstrates these concepts it masterful in its own right. There is so much nuance to this fantastic retelling of Arthurian lore that you can’t help leaving it impressed. And I would wager that this is probably the most important story I will read all year.
The Story You Think You Know
I’ve always loved Arthurian tales. There is something utterly captivating about the boy king, his gallant knights of the round table, and the wizard who advised him. And while Legendborn is certainly a story based around this story, it is in no way what you expect it to be. This is both a brilliant…and an unfortunate thing.
I would love nothing more than to say that I adored every single piece of this book. And truthfully, there’s really only one thing I didn’t care for. In every single other way, this book was basically perfect. Sure, there was a half-baked almost love-triangle, but given the source material, I’m actually fine with it.
What bugged me, though, was the twist at the end. The all at once speed with which it happened was one thing. What’s worse, is I feel horribly conflicted over my distaste for it to the point that I’m still giving this book five stars despite finding it irritating. You see, were this twist not entrenched in the deeper commentaries of the book, I would have hated it. It is only the nuanced acuity of the treatise that made this twist brilliant.
This is a chosen one-eqsue narrative that needed to be precisely that. I guess a part of me is just kind of sick of them.
Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table
I’ve always been weary over the years whenever magic beyond Merlin’s, specifically, is involved in tales of Arthur. When I first picked up Legendborn I was excited, but skeptical. I can be choosy when it comes to certain retellings and Arthurians fall into that realm for me. Fortunately, Deonn’s take on these brave knights and their king was brilliant. It was unique to the point of falling in love, but not so vastly out there that it irks you. I can easily set aside my preconceived notions and love for this story and adopt the world that Deonn has created.
Basically, Arthur and his knights fought demons. To ensure they could continue their battle through the years, Merlin–who is part demon which accounts for his ability to use magic without the assistance of spirits–casts a spell that allows the spirits of Arthur and his knights to reside in and lend power to their decedents. There are a lot of rules for this and equivalent exchange-type limitations. One cannot have great power without giving up something in return.
And it’s amazing. Despite being vastly different from the tale you may know and expect, Deonn melds these world ideas expertly. Never once did I find myself really questioning how these pieces could join together. Root magic was a little more difficult for me to merge with Arthurian legend at first. The connection was a bit harder to grasp, but ultimately still makes for an excellent story.
In a weird way, Legendborn is not as diverse as you kind of expect it to be. At least, not in the way you expect it to be. I was, at times, shocked by this. But I think the message Deonn is trying to send–and send it she does–would not have worked out nearly as well had there been more black folk main characters. Now bare with me, I’m going to dive into this a bit.
As far as central characters go, Bree is pretty much the only black character. There are some side characters of course. Namely, Bree’s father, her ancestors, a therapist, and a young college student. Then there are the waitstaff at that gala later on, but let’s come back to this. Then you have Bree’s best friend Alice Chen (Taiwanese-American) and Sarah, a half-Venezuelan Squire who is pretty white-passing. And that’s pretty much it.
This book is set in the South on a campus that is apparently basically filled with white people. Thus the majority of characters, including both love interests, are white. And when I say both, please note that one of the love interests is barely that.
Back to diversity, where we see the bulk of it is in the LGBTQ characters. There’s the wonderful William, who is gay. Then you have Sel and Tor who are both bi. Sarah and Alice who, to my understanding, are both lesbians. And there’s Greer, who is non-binary.
The True Shining Star
Inherited, Generational Trauma
At the end of the day, the most essential and significant piece to Deonn’s Legendborn is the blackness commentary. Deonn goes much further than simply discussing the surface level pieces that exist within discussions about race. One of the most captivating pieces deals with generational trauma that spans largely from the treatment black people have suffered since the very moment their ancestors first set foot in this country. There’s a visceral pain to the knowledge that one’s history is rooted in slavery and how that has eroded their ability to know that history.
This is a concept that I’m fairly new to. I’ve only recently learned about the impact that not knowing your family’s history or who your ancestors were can have. If I wanted, I could probably trace my familial ancestors back generations. This isn’t always the case for black Americans. More often than not, this isn’t something they can do. Their history has been lost along the path of the suffering their ancestors went through.
Well, you feel that through Bree. And it’s heart-wrenching in every possible way.
Bree’s experience with The Order of the Round Table is dripping in microaggressions. These come from both well-meaning characters and the clear bullies of the story. There are hints of the scars police brutality has left on black Americans, commentaries surrounding gate-keeping, and many, many parallels to classism and slavery. The question of Bree’s worth as an individual is brought up more times than I could count. Some of it is subtle while other bits are overt.
And it’s all interconnected. Race plays a huge part, obviously. But so does classism, existing in where an elite established by generations of slavery, racism, and gate-keeping expect their positions to keep the status quo. These people feel threatened, as though their lives are being infringed upon by the smallest of changes they are expected to make as the world attempts to balance out what has always been unequal privilege.
Remember how I mentioned that there was this gala moment in which all the waitstaff were black? This was an incredibly striking moment in the novel and, like many of the moments of racism that Bree faced, met with her disdain. It’s incredibly telling that this moment is included, meant to make us uncomfortable. And yet it shines light on something important, that the “elite” majority will often do what they can to hold the status they deem theirs and use class structures to hold down those they don’t consider worthy.
And So Much More
I cannot truly account for everything that was brilliant about this novel. I loved the characters immensely. In a great many ways everyone, with perhaps one exception, was brilliant. They were so easy to fall in love with. I also greatly appreciated all the subtle inclusions about the black experience that, wonderfully, will allow for more readers to relate to Bree and also provide small opportunities for growth in those who do not know.
At the end of the day, there’s one thing that I feel an immense need to say about Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn:
We need more books like this.
I was provided a free copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.