Legendborn Tracy Deonn Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2020
Let me start with the ending. I’ve been selling books for more or less thirty years. I’ve read so many young adult novels, I can tell you how the plot will go just by looking at the liner notes. In fact, I can go a fair way just on the cover art. This is not to say that all books are predictable — though, sadly, there does seem to be a rut developing in the once glittery world of YA fiction — but there are only so many stories you can tell about kids. And in my line of work I think I’ve read most of them.
But Legendborn! Hoo boy! Did not see that coming at all!
Of course, I will not tell you what I did not see coming because then it won’t be nearly so much fun for you. Suffice it to say that you won’t see it either. Well, of course, after reading this you might be primed for the unusual plot twist, but I doubt you’ll get there. And that is the highest praise anyone can give to a fantasy novel.
Tracy Deonn loves her characters. She makes them real and engaging. They all have stories to tell. They all have brains and foibles. They are people, people you might meet walking around Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She has taken these modern folks and masterfully woven them into a revisioning of Arthurian myth that brings the story forward and manages to make narrative sense out of the melange that is the Matter of Britain. Her story feels true, as opposed to the crazy quilt that Chrétien de Troyes handed us a thousand years ago as well as most versions since. It’s very hard to take that mess and make it internally consistent because it was never all one story, never meant to be one story. So to make it into one seamless story that is original and unexpected is nothing short of brilliant.
Legendborn is worth searching out just for its own sake, but it gets even better. This is a book that I really wanted to have on the shelf in my YA Reading Room, but it did not exist. It’s a commonplace to say that we need more diversity in fiction for young people. There are some very good stories out there, but there are not enough. And the ones that are most prominent — A Wrinkle in Time comes to mind — tend to minimize the stories a non-white character might bring to the narrative.
Which is irritating for many reasons. But for a reading soul, the biggest one is that there is no need to invent conflict. So many authors write what they know and what they know is suburbia — which is sort of a bland place to be. There is, no doubt, conflict, hate, hurt and heartbreak. But it is of a piece with the shallow roots in these communities. There isn’t a shared story. There isn’t a real mountain to climb or hero’s journey to be undertaken. Suburbia is not very interesting reading material. And so authors, especially YA authors, throw their characters into all sorts of unbelievable and rather histrionic manufactured drama. How many teen love triangles can you read about before they get really annoying? (I’m thinking three.)
Legendborn is one of the few YA fantasies that does not flinch from telling the story of a Black girl in the South. This is the principle reason the narrative is so compelling and feels so very real. There isn’t made up drama; there is real struggle. This is a rooted story, girded with lore and history — actual history, not the redacted pabulum that we read in textbooks. There is blood and birth and betrayal under this story. If I’d had this book ten years ago, I would have put it into the hands of every kid in Albuquerque — especially girls. Because this is a story that speaks to reality and yet manages to magically sparkle as the best sort of fantasy does. Teens will devour it. And in doing so they’ll be ingesting more of the Matter of U.S., which is the most fascinating and heartbreaking story ever told.
There will be more books in this series. I am looking forward to them. In the meantime, I will be campaigning to get this book in every library around me. And I have to say you might do worse than buying a copy and donating it to a young person in your life or to your public library or to any nearby little free library boxes — but only after you’ve read that fantastic ending!