Lodestar 2021 Review: Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

We have a lot more reading time this year in the Hugo Awards than usual and I’ve found I’ve made some dents into categories I don’t normally get to. My biggest problem with longer fiction is that my reading time for novels is now almost exclusively when I’m exercising which means audiobooks. I’ve recently launched myself into reading Seanann McGuire’s October Daye series but that’s a post for a different day. The other foray has been into fiction for a younger audience in the other not-a-Hugo aka the Lodestar Award.

First book in that arena is Legendborn, a YA urban fantasy Arthurian romance and that’s a very nice cocktail of sub-genres. Chaste love triangles? It’s a Young Adult cliche, it’s how urban fantasy spawned paranormal romance but it is nothing new to the legend of King Arthur. The classic Matter of Britain is such a rich vein that Legendborn feels so natural a fit to its premise that I feel like it must have been done a thousand times before but I can’t think of any examples. It cleverly fills an empty niche and if it had done only that then Tracy Deonn would deserve plaudits if only for spotting an unfilled spot.

Clever sub-genre choices though aren’t what makes a book worthy of a not-quite-a-Hugo-but-yeah-really-it-is-a-Hugo-c’mon and the test is not picking a clever premise but doing clever things with the premise and I’m genuinely impressed with how Deonn works with the idea and then pulls out layers and layers while still delivering on the demands of the sub-sub-genre.

Bree Matthews is a bright student who gains acceptance to an “early college” placement at a notable college in a Southern US state. Her academic success though has been marred by tragedy — shortly after being accepted to the college, her mother died in a car accident. She now finds herself as a sixteen-year-old, in the quasi-adult world of university still grieving and with unresolved issues around her last argument with her mother.

On her face night, things get weirder when she encounters magical creatures and a clique of students who appear to have magical powers…

So if you want the magical school setting and the urban fantasy masquerade and all that stuff, Legendborn delivers from training montages to magical competitions and handsome but troubled young men. We quickly learn that (gasp) the legend of King Arthur is a cover story for a history of a secret war between magical initiates and invading demons. A historic secret society at the college is actually a front for an international society of descendants from King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Each family of descendants of the knights have a chosen representative with the capability of gaining special powers matched to the lineage.

Clever stuff but…

Bree is Black and the secret society has all the baggage that you might imagine of a clique of wealthy families connected to a historic institution in America’s south. Legendborn isn’t a subversion of the standard tropes of its multiple genres but it does allow the plot and the character to dig into the history and assumptions of its own settings.

The mystery of her mother’s death drives Bree into involvement with the so-called ‘legend born but also leads her into looking into the history of her own family. There she learns not just about some of the deeper secrets of the secret society she has become embroiled in but also a different history and a different model of magic.

There are some really nice touches here and while I don’t want to give too many spoilers there are some subtle choices in the world-building. For example, in the Arthurian set-up, which is presented initially as the magical world in which Bree is initiated, magic is based on lineages and bloodlines. Inheritance and family are key aspects of having power. Later, as Bree taps into a different world of magic, family is still important but it is transmitted via oral tradition from grandmothers to granddaughters. The comparison and contrast between the idea of magic (and hence power) as a family legacy is very well done but it is subtle and woven into the more conventional narrative.

The novel is part of a series and the over-arching plot isn’t complete by the end but as a stand alone novel, it works and there is a good (and revealing) climax that shifts events and character relationships into a new state.

No big plot surprises but an excellent example of how to take what superficially looks like a by-the-numbers plot and do engaging things with it.

17 thoughts on “Lodestar 2021 Review: Legendborn by Tracy Deonn

  1. And this is (imho) one of the weaker books in the category. (I disliked one other that is extremly popular, but did not work for me)
    I have slowed down a bit this year, I don’t try to read everythink as fast, because no deadline presure and there is a category I am less sure about voting then last year.
    I am not sure what to do about Editor Short Form, because there is the problem of the 6. Editor.

    But Legendborn has a problem that I have with another book, how much can an ending rescue it? Because the secret society is very near to the famous deadly words for me.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Not YA, but maybe Purser-Hallard’s Devices trilogy (which, unfortunately, gives away the magnificent plot twist of book one in the *title* of book two!) might be considered an urban fantasy update of the Arthurian romances?

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    1. Yeah, you have to be in the mood for all of that because the book engages in it unapologetically. I think that’s why I wouldn’t call it a subversion of the stereotype YA tropes as such, although it adds layers and critiques some of them.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I’m very much not the target audience for this with all the training and magical school stuff. But then, my reaction to the Lodestar finalists is often “I’m not the target audience for this.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Same here; I loved the Kingfisher, and managed to deal with the angsty teenaged angst of the Novik. I’m going to give Elatsoe a try, but the synopses for the other 3 books just have no appeal for me whatsoever. Nevertheless, I supported the establishment of the Lodestar YA category, and my perception is that it has been particularly successful in identifying quality works.

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        1. For once I haven’t read most of the Lodestar books yet. In fact, the only one I’ve completed is the Novik. I dnfed both Legendborn and Cemetery Boys. But I only dnfed Cemetery Boys because I didn’t like the narrator in audio; the story actually seemed like it was going to be very sweet. I’ll try to get back to it in text.

          I always love Kingfisher’s narrative voice, whether or not I end up liking her plots. I wish like hell that all of her books were available in audio, but at least more of them are being made available these days. I’ll be reading the text before the deadline.

          And I’ve got Raybearer waiting for me at the library right now, so I’ll be listening that one before long.

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            1. I wasn’t crazy about the plots in either The Twisted Ones or The Hollow Places. But I still loved the voice they were written in. 🙂

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            2. frasersherman: I love Ursula Vernon’s work under her own name. I read The Twisted Ones and gave up.

              The T. Kingfisher works span fantasy to steampunkish to horror. I really loved Swordheart, the Clocktaur War duology, Summer in Orcus and Wizard’s Guide, and only slightly less, the Paladin duology and Minor Mage. I did read all of The Twisted Ones, but it didn’t do much for me, either, so I didn’t pick up The Hollow Places.

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            3. I really enjoyed The Twisted Ones and I am definitely not normally a horror fan. I plan to read The Hollow Places after I get more Hugo reading done.

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      2. I don’t mind the existence of the Lodestar and it is apparently a popular category and the winners so far have all been good choices. However, I find that I struggle most with this category, because I’m simply not the target audience for these books.

        I did enjoy A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking a lot and it will likely be my top choice. Meanwhile, I dread the Novik, because I have never been able to connect with her work – Temeraire was the only thing by her that I actually enjoyed – plus it’s another book which has the dreaded magic school trope.

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      3. I have that sometimes. I think that the books that have the most chance to win are those who work for adults, too.
        Re Twisted Ones and The Hollow Places: Both are horror, which is not for everyone. TWGTDB is more like Minor Mage from last year. Not only are both fantasy, both were original planed to be published under her real name, but a bit to dark for the publishers taste. I think the book this year is better then her book last year.

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  3. I know Tracey (one of my wife’s friends) so I’m delighted the book’s gotten such a good response. It’s been on my shelf but I succumbed to checking out a ton of books from the library once it was open again. Next month, though.

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  4. I loved this, it was one of my books of last year and made both my Lodestar and my Best Novel ballots – the way it subverts the triumphant Arthurian mythos, by establishing the contrary tradition of magic of black women passed down through the ages, showing the privileged and racist background that comes with the descendants of the mythos, and shows the truth of how inheritance of bloodlines can work was really impressive, with some really great characters along the way (to say nothing of it dealing with the protagonist’s grieving for a lost parent).

    Yeah it’s tropey, but that’s what YA tends to be. But it uses those tropes in impressive fashion with a ton of introspection into the themes behind them that are often overlooked, and I can’t wait for the sequel.

    My review of the book is here: https://garik16.blogspot.com/2020/09/scififantasy-book-review-legendborn-by.html

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