Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

Being a high school overachiever often seems like the only way to guarantee the college-bound future that many young people strive for. So imagine Bree’s surprise when her own mother negatively reacts to Bree’s acceptance into the Early College program at the University of North Carolina, her mother’s alma mater. Even more tragically, before the mother and daughter can recover from the major argument that this news presents, Bree’s mother is the victim of a fatal car accident. Reeling from this profound loss, Bree goes forward with the Early College program in hopes of distracting herself into productivity and possibly finding connection to her mother by partaking in similar campus experiences.

As Legendborn progresses, we see Bree’s journey through grief go through the universally acknowledged five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. During Bree’s denial stage, which lasts through much of the book, she gets involved with a mysterious group who she learns may be involved with her mother’s death. Believing that the clues that she’s gathered will help her to find the reason behind it all, Bree pushes Nick, a cute guy that happens to mean a lot to the secret society she needs entry into, to aid her secret cause.

However, Nick’s help getting her in doesn’t mean success for her mission. First, based on the rules of this Order, new people like herself are only allowed one area of entry — which means competition with people who have been bred to serve this system since they were born. Second, there are mysterious awakenings of terrifying demon creatures that risk the secrecy of the Order and the deaths of their members and non-members alike. Third, Bree finds herself falling for Nick, a mutual desire that is discouraged by the majority of the Order, including powerful and attractive mage, Selwyn, who places plenty of barriers around Bree’s success.

With the Order somehow becoming the most and the least of Bree’s concerns, she must also contend with her failing relationship with best friend and Early College enrollee, Alice, persuade her father that she’s doing well despite some initial missteps, and go through therapy that also introduces her to a part of her mother’s legacy that she had no idea existed.

Throughout it all, we see Bree’s lingering anger towards: the racism directed at her and those she interacts with; her mother for leaving without providing her insight about her magical abilities that have recently appeared; and those obscuring the truth about what happened to her mother. The bargaining and depression stages leave Bree some of the clarity that she seeks, but are not nearly as satisfying as she’d hoped for in her journey towards truth. It is in the final act of the book that we see her simultaneously gain knowledge that leads her to understand who she truly is and accept not only her mother’s untimely death but what it means for who she’s become after this unbearable event.

I would be remiss not to note the ode to Arthurian legend that leads the fantastic core of this universe but cannot share much about it here without providing spoilers. What I can share is that the legendary aspects of this old mythos was shrewdly chosen by Legendborn author Tracy Deonn to both challenge and accentuate the importance of maintaining tradition and legacy, especially in a setting like the American South where both of these concepts drive a great deal of culture and society — for better and worse. In remaining true to the feel and rhythm of Southern life, while also shining a light on the Black experience in this region with a fantasy set up, Legendborn serves as an intriguing first entry in what looks to be a series as windy and undeterred as the curls in Bree’s hair.