The legend of King Arthur is one of the West’s most popular of ancient stories. Why, exactly, it has held sway for thousands of years is up for debate. I think it’s because, with Sir Thomas Malory’s additions to the narrative, there’s a little bit of something for everyone. Action, romance, magic, triumph of good over evil, epic last stands. And it’s old. Very old. Which means it’s hard to separate truth from myth, giving writers ample room to take some creative liberties of their own.
Warning: spoilers abound for Legendborn in this post, but never fear. If you want to have a spoiler-free review, it’ll be included in my next rapid review post coming on January 8th 🙂 We won’t be talking about the plot in-depth, but we will be talking about the magic systems and the way they interact with the “real world,” which will mean discussing information that the reader isn’t privy to until later on in the book. If you want to read the book first (which, hey, I do recommend), then feel free to come back to this post once you have.
If you like Arthurian legends, I recently read a book called The Lost Queen by Signe Pike. The author took a more realistic approach to the lore, giving the reader a sense of what it was really like to live in fifth century Scotland. There’s magic, but it’s subtle.
Tracy Deonn takes Legendborn in the complete opposite direction. The book is urban fantasy. It takes place in the present date, even located at a real school. The reader doesn’t get to engage directly with the origins of King Arthur, but of course, the legendary promise of Arthur’s return has some writing allure of its own, and it’s this aspect of the legend that Deonn focuses on. And the magic, once discovered, is overt. The muggles are clueless, but if you’re in the know, then you can see the magic everywhere.
Before we get into the magic system, let’s talk about the separation of worlds.
The Muggles vs the Wizarding World
Separating magic from muggles is not a new concept. You see the likes of it in Harry Potter. You see it with the Shadowhunters. You see it in the Dresden Files (at least up through book 2, which is how far I’ve gotten). The book’s protagonist, Bree, stumbles across magic on her first day at her new school, and from there, the entire book involves further discoveries and explorations. Of course, we’ll talk about the exact nature of the magic in a moment here, but there are a few key abilities that help keep the magic world a secret.
- The evil demon-creatures can only be seen by the Onceborn (muggles) when they go fully corporeal, which is not common.
- Partially corporeal demons can, I believe, hurt Onceborn. However, there’s something of a clean-up crew in the Legendborn ranks for those that die in the attack. Those that survive are “mesmered.” Their memories are replaced so that the existence of demon-creatures and those that fight them are kept from the real world.
- The Legendborn ranks are far-reaching, but only certain people have access to certain information. Even Vassals, people who have no magical abilities but who fund the Legendborn, are said not to take the threat of demon-creatures all that seriously. Otherwise, the organization is willing to do whatever it takes to keep their existence secret.
- There are magical spells that Merlins (the magic-wielders) can cast that indirectly, but strongly, influence Onceborn to stay away from any buildings where they regularly meet.
These are relatively standard concepts for keeping magic separate and distinct from the “real world.” But so-called cliché’s are not always a detriment to the narrative. They help fade to the background so that other elements can be highlighted for the reader. And the truth is, the point is not that magic exists, but that it is exclusionary. There are those who know magic exists, those who can wield magic, who are not accepted into the ranks of demon-fighters because the color of their skin and the history of their people sets them apart from the white savior narrative that inevitably pervades Arthurian legends.
No, this book is not overtly, smack-you-in-the-face about race. But there are more than a few uncomfortable truths to be found here, and yes, we are going to talk about them.
The Legendborn Hierarchy
The book features two branches of magic. The Legendborn call magic aether. Those who can wield straight aether are called Merlins. The magic here comes from having a “goruchel” demon (the most humanoid of them, also called crossroads demons) in their ancestry somewhere. Merlins are capable of forging Oaths on members, mesmering, and using aether weapons to kill demon-creatures. Selwyn Kane, the most powerful Merlin of his generation, can also move superhumanly fast, is strong enough to tear trees apart with his hands, and can move silently. The reader doesn’t interact much with other Merlins, so whether these abilities are found only in the strongest of Merlins or whether all of them are capable is unclear.
The title Legendborn is reserved for the descendants of King Arthur and his trusted thirteen knights. Their abilities are forged from what is called Bloodcraft, allowing the descendants to tap into the special abilities of their knightly ancestors. Gawain’s descendant excels at healing and, because it’s Welsh and the Welsh have some bonkers magic, super strength specifically at midnight and midday. Tristan’s descendant excels at marksmanship. And so on. Additionally, once the Legendborn has been Awakened–when their knight has connected to them and given them their abilities–the Legendborn can also create aether armor and aether weapons.
Mysterious figures called Regents are in charge of the Order until the descendant of King Arthur is Awakened, an event that only happens once every few centuries, when things get really bad with the demons. The Regents, however, are based elsewhere. When it comes to combat, rank is determined by the rank of their knight’s ancestry, presumably whether they have been Awakened or not. Arthur’s descendant, obviously, is first ranked. Lancelot is second. Gawain is twelfth. Vassals know little about demons–most of them can’t even see demons because they do not have knightly blood to help them see–and so have the lowest rank in the organization.
Bloodcraft Versus Rootcraft
At the beginning of the book, it seems that aether is this wonderful thing, and it really is amazing. There are, however, laws of magic. It is not free. Magic is rooted in ancestry for both Bloodcraft and Rootcraft, but in the former, the users are cheating. They essentially make magic from nothing. To pay for it, Awakened knights and their bonded Squires have a far shorter lifespan, and not just from all the fighting of demons.
Further into the book, readers learn of Rootcraft. Both types are superpower magic systems (see: Five Types of Magic Systems), but the Bloodcraft kind allows for some extra kinds of magic. Rootcraft is more distinct. There is a memory-walker who can show people memories of their ancestors, and mediums who can connect a living person with the soul of a deceased person. We also see a person use root to aide in healing. The difference is that Rootcraft relies on the dead to answer a summons, and who answers, if anyone, is up to the ghost of the dead rather than the person wielding the magic.
The use of magic is, in the eyes of the Order, strictly for those in the Order. If they find anyone else who can use it, they assume they are an enemy, and things can get ugly from there. This is a large reason as to why the practice of Rootcraft is so diverse and kept even more quiet than Legendborn. Wielders of root (aether, magic) know to keep their craft a secret, and have since at least as long as the days of slavery, based on the memories the reader is shown. And, considering how viscious Regents and Merlins are shown to be, it’s not a surprise.
Power of History
It is perhaps unsurprising that an ancient secret Order of King Arthur is slow to change. Vassals remain in-family and can stretch as far back as the colonization of America or further. As a result, Vassalage is almost completely comprised of white folk. Legendborn are also seemingly completely white. Their line is carefully monitored so that no one can potentially become the Scion (the descendant of) more than one knight, so it’s no surprise, perhaps, that interracial marriages are likewise kept to a minimum.
One of the prevailing themes is the history of a family. Bree gets to see a giant wall that shows the lines of each knight, stretching back to the sixth century when the Arthurian legends were first born. That’s fifteen hundred years‘ worth of knowledge passed down from generation to generation. But many black folk are unable to go back more than five, six generations because no one bothered to keep family records of slaves, and when families get torn apart, how did they have any hope of keeping track of their own history?
Just as sad is the subtle realization that black folk don’t have any well-known mystical figures like King Arthur. There’s hope and wonder in the mythos surrounding the Once and Future King. But if white folk couldn’t even be bothered to document the graves of the black people that helped build the university where the book takes place, or can’t be bothered to keep family records of their slaves, then why on earth would they keep records of any stories that didn’t originate from Europe? What legendary figures were lost to time because there was no Sir Thomas Mallory type willing to write it down and preserve them?
As is often the case with successful fantasy books, the world of Legendborn works because the author knows which elements need to be developed and focused on in order to convey the themes she is trying to convey. The world of the Legendborn doesn’t have to be super fancy, and neither does the magic system, because the magic isn’t what is important to the narrative. The fact that the Legendborn, that is to say, white, history is so well-documented, that there’s so much about it that is available for the protagonist to learn, is important. The fact that the magical practices of Rootcraft, the traditions of which appear to belong exclusively to black folk, is not documented offers the protagonist and the reader a dichotomy that bolsters the overall themes of the story.
And, while the book is not inherently about the influences of slavery on present day, it is a book about a black character in the present date, written by a black author who is familiar with constant microaggressions that the protagonist will bump into time and time again. The story itself is compelling, a relatively easy feat when it has such sturdy world-building foundations.