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.