It befell in the days of Bree Matthews that there was a racist system in need of a royal ass-kicking. A few months ago, Bree’s mother died in a tragic car accident that threw Bree’s entire life off kilter. In a last ditch effort to escape her grief, Bree enrolls in an early college program for high school students at UNC Chapel Hill. Attending with her is her best friend Alice. A chance encounter at an unauthorized off-campus party reveals to Bree a world she never knew existed, one humming with magic. When she discovers a potential connection between her mother’s death and the magical teens battling demons in the woods, she decides to infiltrate the group and expose the truth.
Nick, the son of one of the most powerful men in the Order of the Round Table and the boy destined to become a king, is drawn to Bree…and she to him. Their connection is instant and intense. Standing in her way is Selwyn, a living weapon who will do anything and everything to protect his prince, and the misogynoir of the grand old party of wealthy white people who dominate the Order. But there are bigger threats to Bree than casual racism and ignorant remarks. The more she learns about magic—the Bloodcraft of the Order and the Rootcraft of her mother’s people—the more she picks at the threads forming a massive and ancient conspiracy.
Bree begins the novel feeling alone in the world. After her mother died, she lost her last connection to the maternal branch of her family tree. Those of you who can track your family line back through the centuries and kingdoms cannot understand what it feels like to not know your history. In the basement of their lodge, the Knights display a massive obsidian Wall of Ages detailing the lineages of every member going all the way back to the Round Table. Bree looks upon it and feels not awe but sorrow and frustration: “who could have written down my family’s history as far back as this? Who would have been able to, been taught to, been allowed to? Where is our Wall? A Wall that doesn’t make me feel lost, but found.”
The Order has what she cannot because they made sure she and other Black people couldn’t. They, like Thomas Jefferson and other heroes of democracy, espouse the principles of equality without practicing them. The descendants of the Knights of the Round Table landed on American shores in the spirit of colonization and conquest and used their power to oppress, abuse, and torture people of African descent.
My roots, like Bree’s, are in shallow soil, yet some of that erosion is self-inflicted. Both of our families treat our history like a hardship to be borne in silence rather than a culture to be shared. We know nothing of those who came before the generation that was freed by Emancipation. Their stories, their traditions, their superstitions and songs and hopes and fears were left behind when my mother’s parents left the South for the North, yet they had been fading long before that. Our ancestors are honored, but we don’t talk about them unless pressed. It is a survival tactic, as odd as that may seem. The pain and horror of lynchings and sexual violence and exploitation are sometimes so great that they can only be borne by boxing them up and hiding them away until they are forgotten.
For Bree, a curse becomes generational trauma becomes the spark that turns her into a raging wildfire of determination. Bree learns to do more than roll with the punches doled out by white supremacy. She takes that momentum and uses it to punch back. For every snide comment about her only being accepted as a Page because of affirmative action and that her Blackness will taint the pure white lineage of Knights, Bree breaks off another piece of their racist traditions. Because in reality, white supremacy is the stain, the aberration, the cancer eating away at humanity. White slaveholders shattered and invaded Black family lines because they could, because they wanted to, yet we continue to exist. For that we are punished and blamed and accused.
By the end, Bree realizes she isn’t alone, not truly. No Black person is, no matter how much it feels like we are. To my young Black siblings in this fight, hear this: you are not alone. Your ancestors survived the unsurvivable. They outlived the march to the barracoons and the journeys across the sea, the disease-infested rice fields and the blood-soaked sugar plantations, the whips and chains and iron collars. They called for abolition and took up arms. They passed down secret knowledge and used it to escape to freedom. They sat at lunch counters and boycotted buses and marched on bridges. They danced and paraded and sang and praised and hollered. For four hundred years, this country tried to crush them, but your ancestors stood strong. They lived so you could live. Look behind you at the generations of hands reaching out to support you. Look below you at the shoulders on which you stand. You are not alone.
I wrote this review the morning after the death of a king while listening to an album of art and anger as sung by a queen. It was fitting in a way, typing in a state of simultaneous mourning and celebration, for that is where Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn lives. This fierce young adult fantasy stands, sword in hand, at the intersection between loss and life, our ancestors and our descendants, the diaspora and the ancient traditions that bind us together. Deonn uses the language of the people but infused with the emphasis of a leader and the passion of an activist. Her novel fuses together the power of Black Panther and the Black Girl Magic of Beyoncé into one of the best YA fantasy novels of the year.
Legendborn is an intoxicating mix of Southern Black traditions, the King Arthur mythos, and teenage melodrama. Tracy Deonn delves into age-old tropes and twists them into something bigger and better. Although everyone should read it, this is a novel written for Black teens. Deonn and Bree speak directly to them about how to resist a world built to break them down. Bree is a dragon burning down the village of white supremacy and patriarchy and I AM SO HERE FOR IT.