Often when I pick up a novel, especially a fantasy novel, I’m searching for a feeling.
Specifically the feeling of being in high school, completely wired on a Tuesday night because I just finished a story that had me gripped so tightly in its clutches that being pulled out of it feels simultaneously like gasping for air… while also trying to dive back into the water. The feeling of mental anguish that comes from knowing a sequel is at least a year away and dammit, you might not be able to make it til then. The feeling of having to incessantly hound your best friend to read the book because you absolutely cannot wait for a sequel if you don’t at least have someone else to talk about the characters with.
This book gave me that feeling and then some, all wrapped up in a beautiful, inclusive, Afrofantasy package.
Legendborn is the debut novel of story warrior Tracy Deonn. Following the tragic death of her mother, sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews begins to see things — magical, dangerous things. Things she shouldn’t see in places she isn’t meant to be. When a threatening teenage demon hunter makes a failed attempt to wipe her memory, Bree realizes that what she’s seeing may be connected to her mother’s death. Powered by grief and vengeance, she makes it her mission to find out the truth by any means necessary. Even if that means infiltrating an ancient, secret society full of spoiled white kids known as “Legendborn” who come from old money and even older power.
Even deeper than the thrill and romance of demon-hunting and handsomely mysterious boys are the themes of family, legacy, love, and loss. As a young Black woman without a mother, Bree feels the ache for maternal guidance and wisdom that spans generations as the story explores her past and ancestry, hidden in plain view at her Southern university — a university, importantly, that was built on the backs of enslaved men and women whose pain still lingers in the present day.
As Bree navigates her newfound reality and the powers these truths have awakened inside her, Arthurian legends come to life all around her in the most epic and heart-stopping ways possible. She must learn the histories she thought were myths, train to fight the monsters in the shadows, and hide her true intentions from those who seek to cast her out from their world of privilege and peril.
This book had everything I ever loved about fantasy and paranormal romance without any of the pitfalls. Deonn’s writing carries all the tempting, page-turning anticipation of an epic hero’s story. Booktuber Francina Simone made an excellent video about some of the perils of meshing fantasy and romance — namely the warped perspective characters can often have when it’s unclear which genre takes precedence. However, it’s obvious from the outset that Deonn has her writing priorities completely straight. This book is fantasy first, and the stakes are high.
At every turn we are reminded of the nature of Bree’s personhood. Unlike so many YA fantasy protagonists before her, she is not a character whose skin we can inhabit and impose our own personalities onto. She is a girl with her own distinct mind and mission. Nevertheless, I see parts of myself in her, and that is entirely due to Deonn’s deft commentary on race and identity.
Growing up, these genres always had a glaring habit of forgetting that Black people exist, or sidelining them to one-line roles where they wouldn’t ruin the “perfect” fantasy world so many white authors strived to design: worlds where they would create mythical histories spanning centuries or even millennia without ever acknowledging any of the racialized atrocities of the world; worlds ruled and inhabited by powerful white beings who would have certainly existed throughout the decimation of Indigenous populations, the abhorrence of chattel slavery, and countless other inhumanities that appear to have left no visible marks in the stories. For this Black reader, it was alienating.
Legendborn instead puts a Black girl at its center and forces the mystical world around her to reckon with the history their “legacy” was built on, no matter how uncomfortable it makes them. In Bree, we get a protagonist with a voice, resolve, and the agency to make decisions that determine her own future without ever forgetting the past. In Deonn’s world, we see the resonance and power of the ancestry history would have us forget.
I am beyond excited for the next installment of this story and the further excellence Deonn will bring to the genre of Afrofantasy. This series has already proven itself to be a striking celebration of Black womanhood, generational healing, and what it means to truly know your roots.
Legendborn is available wherever books are sold.
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Casira is a writer, traveler, and Black feminist explorer who enjoys both fiction and nonfiction of all stripes. Follow her on IG @cejayce for pop color photos from whatever part of the planet she's currently on. For questions regarding book reviews, email firstname.lastname@example.org