Legendborn offers a refreshing new interpretation of Arthurian legend

Legendborn by Tracy Deonn. Image courtesy Simon & Schuster
Legendborn by Tracy Deonn. Image courtesy Simon & Schuster /

Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn is the sort of debut novel that fantasy dreams are made of – with a complicated heroine, an underserved perspective, and an exciting new take on an age-old story.

The story of King Arthur and the Round Table has been around for a long time. And, as such, there are many takes on the legend – some simply straightforwardly recount the story of a once and future king who was both a great warrior and a good man. But others eagerly explore other, less frequently centered characters, such as Guinevere or Nimue, the Lady of the Lake, and reimagine new ways of telling this tale that’s almost as old as time.

Tracey Deonn’s debut novel Legendborn falls firmly in the latter category, relocating the King Arthur myth to America and re-centering it around a young Black girl desperate to figure out who she is. And it’s honestly wonderful: Full of rich interior world-building, a fresh and complicated take on the Round Table, and a perspective that’s been missing for far too long from this particular literary lane – all mixed with a unique dash of Southern history.

Legendborn follows the story of Bree, a sixteen-year-old girl who’s been accepted to an early college program at the University of North Carolina. Her mother was recently killed in a car accident and Bree is seriously struggling to deal with her death, particularly while auditing classes at her alma mater after their last conversation was about her attending the program in the first place. But after she witnesses a demon attack during her first on-campus party, she realizes that there’s something connecting her mother and their family history to a secret society known as the Order of the Round Table.

As their name implies, this group of mostly privileged wealthy white kids traces their lineage back to King Arthur and his knights. These Legendborn spend their lives fighting demons and other supernatural creatures who attempt to creep into our world and working to protect the Onceborn who know nothing of them. The spirits of each original knight have the ability to awaken or “Call” the current leaders of their various bloodlines, but as most have not been summoned to their duty in years, the organization has become little more than a basion of powerful and influential people.

Which makes Bree’s decision to try and infiltrate their ranks much more difficult. Thanks to the help of her peer mentor, Nick Davis, Bree scores an invite to their initiation tournament and attempts to earn a place among them as an outsider, in the hopes that increased access to the group’s archival records – and their powerful Kingsmage Selwyn Kane – will not only help her control her newfound magical abilities, but solve the mystery of what happened to her mother, and why Bree’s memories of it are so foggy.

As a young Black girl, Bree is immediately seen as an outsider among this group for more reasons than one, and Legendborn is at its best when it sits at this intersection of race and gender, reminding its readers how very different its heroine’s lived experiences have been than most of those around her. The novel is exceptionally good at weaving in real stories of enslaved people in the South and the way their stolen lives resonate throughout the years that followed, including giving rise to a specifically ancestral form of magic based on consent and grace that the Order knows little about.

You should know going in that the first and fifty hundred pages or so of Legendborn are an extremely slow burn, introducing us to Bree and her history, as well as explaining the complicated system of Scions, Squires, Pages, Merlins, and Vassals that make up this complicated secret society and the various oaths they all swear to one another. (And some of those connections won’t really make complete sense until you nearly reach the end of the story and see the order fully come together under threat.)

But as Bree continues on through the tournament that will determine whether or not she’s allowed to join the Order herself, the story becomes compellingly propulsive, rocketing through plot twists and character revelations at a breakneck pace that will leave you sneaking snippets of the story whenever you get a free moment.

Legendborn is not only an entertainingly fresh take on a story we’ve heard many times before but one that feels more necessary than ever right now, A tale that wrestles with heavy issues of representation, racism, and intergenerational trauma even as it depicts a real and relatable coming of age tale (in more ways than one) and sprinkles in fun Easter eggs that reference various other bits of Arthurian lore, this novel really does feel like it has a little bit of everything.

And where the story goes from here is anyone’s guess.

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Legendborn is available now. Let us know if you’re planning to add it to your to-read list for the Fall!