Magic, King Arthur and a UNC-Chapel Hill setting? I’m not entirely sure that there’s a book more in line with my life and interests than that. Plus, every single review I’ve read has been glowing. So really there was never a chance I didn’t read this one. Expectations were high. And wow – it stood up.
“Everything has two histories. Especially in the South.”
Bree Matthews leaves her home in small-town NC to start an Early College program at UNC-Chapel Hill just months after her mother’s death. Bree and her best friend, Alice, head to the program together, but their extracurriculars split pretty early on when Bree sees a magical demon creature attack right after arrival. When the attempt to erase her memory of the event fails, Bree is pulled into a secret society of “Legendborn,” descendants of Arthur and the original Knights of the Round Table who, for centuries, have secretly protected the world from the Shadowborn demons. But even having learned all those secrets, things are still not all as they appear. Bree’s mentor Nick (who she may or may not be falling for) is more to the Order of the Round Table than he seems, the society’s mage, Sel, seems to have something against her, and the historical bloodlines are not enthused to have her Onceborn (and Black) presence in their ranks. But Bree stays, because she is sure that the Order has something to do with her mother’s untimely death. And then there’s the fact that she has so many abilities that she didn’t know about and can’t explain. That, along with the discovery of the Order, working through grief for her mother, keeping up with school, and the other magic that runs in her family but her mother never told her about, Bree has quite a bit of self and ancestral discovery in front of her. Oh, and of course the decision of whether or not to stay involved with the Order and help them fight in the clearly impending “end of the world” war with the Shadowborn.
I just reread that blurb I wrote and despite how long it is, I still feel like I did a terrible job giving a picture of just how much happens in this book. It is pretty nonstop, pacing-wise, right from the beginning. We meet Sel and the Shadowborn right away and from there, it’s reveal after reveal as Bree learns more about the Legendborn, the Order, their “work,” who Nick really is, and starts to break through Sel’s exterior. Then there’s the real life stuff, with school and her friend Alice and staying in contact with her father and seeing a therapist to help her start to work through the loss of her mother. Which opens up a whole new line of reveals, as Bree learns she inherited an unexpected magical gift from her mother (that runs in the line of females in her family), and what that means for her involvement with the Order, as well as finding help in reaching out to her ancestors to learn more about her abilities. Like seriously, for weeks on end it feels like Bree never has a chance to take a breath or have a moment to process. And as a reader that was thrilling. However, as far as a (small) critique of the book, it did feel like the timing of the plot development was perhaps a bit fast to be realistic. And of course I mean that in regards to character and relationship development, because I know that magic (despite all my personal hopes) is not realistic. Sort of along these lines, this book began as a really well blended mix of fantasy and real life, but I did feel like by the end, the balance had tipped a bit extra towards fantasy and we lost touch a little bit with the grounded “real” setting.
Anyways, let me talk more about the things I loved. Get ready for an all-over-the-place list here. First, OMG the nostalgia! Even though some places were more euphemistic or changed, I still loved recognizing the real life inspirations/locations – Gimghoul castle, the secret societies existence/rumors, the Arboretum, the Unsung Founders Memorial, the (mid-campus!) cemetery, Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe, and, though it isn’t a UNC landmark, the State Fair mention – I just loved “spotting” all the places I have known and lived by for years. Super fun! Also, I’m a hella King Arthur mythology fangirl, so I was all in for that entire aspect. It was such a unique take on the popular stories and I loved what Deonn did with it all to bring it into the present day!
Bree herself was a great teen character. I loved her headstrong surety and strength and also appreciated the (again, headstrong) unwillingness to listen and consider before making decisions – so accurate for the age. I was glad to see the start of the turn with Sel’s character. Call me basic and predictable, but I love a “dark” and tattooed and mysterious male MC (Nick was great too, if I’m honest, just not my type) and so I was really hoping we’d get some of that “secret good side” eventually. I was also into how much of Bree’s relationships with both Nick and Sel is up in the air at the end – there was so much going on that it seemed like the right way to end it and I cannot wait to see how the three of them play out moving forwards. In fact, I really want to call out that with all the fast pacing, it would have been easy to leave it there and let the characters play second fiddle. And most of the side ones did, I thought. But I think Nick and Sel and, especially Bree (even though it happened a little fast), did have some great development. Specifically, Bree’s relationship with her mother and her mother’s death, moving through the ways she ignored the grief and then projected it and then finally, as she began to get closure, moved into actually dealing with it, was intense throughout, but well handled. Overall, a really solid mix of character and plot movement and growth throughout.
The last thing I want to point out, that I loved, and appreciated so much it deserves its own paragraph, was the way Deonn takes on the part of UNC (and the South in general’s) history of slavery and racism that it is still embroiled in forgetting/sweeping under the rug and pretending doesn’t exist anymore, despite all evidence to the contrary. This was a stunning tribute to the strength and resilience and survival of Black women, in the face of so much direct and intergenerational violence and trauma and loss and (looking at the many ways the Order legacy families reacted to Bree and how white people still act IRL), is alive and well. Using Bree’s mother and ancestors as a single example representing so much more, the mother-daughter connection and grief is so strong, the deep loss of ancestral connection and knowledge and closure that was (is) stolen from so many, it difficult to reckon with, but must be done. On this note, and in an effort to avoid spoilers, I’ll keep it vague: the forced legacy storyline “twist” was…wow. Intense and chilling and an absolute “inextricable, horrible truth” that throws light onto a dark and buried trauma reality (one that really must be more a widespread reality than anyone – anyone white – realizes or is willing to consider). Phew.
Well, Deonn delivered everything I was looking forward to and promised by other reviewers, plus some. This opening novel was chock full of magic and secrets and twists, new relationships and great supportive friendships, spectacular “world”-building, adversaries both societal and magical, the tough moments of discovery and closure, and a beautiful and difficult recognition of the [forced] resilience of Black women in the Southern US throughout the centuries. Gorgeously crafted and executed. I cannot wait to see where this story goes in book two and I highly recommend it.
“To be able to trace one’s family back that far is something I have never fathomed. My family only knows back to the generation after Emancipation. Suddenly, it’s hard to stand here and take in the magnificence of the Wall and not feel an undeniable since of ignorance and inadequacy. Then, a rush of frustration because someone probably wanted to record it all, but 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. A Wall that towers over anyone who lays eyes on it. Instead of awe, I feel…cheated.”
“Sometimes, you say the awful thing quickly and without taking a breath because lingering is too painful.”
“Don’t make your life about the loss. Make it about the love.”