Our Bloodmarked book review examines how Tracy Deonn has finally perfected the YA fantasy heroine after many predecessors have fallen short.
As a twenty-something who is active on booktok, it should come as no surprise that I was raised on the YA dystopian fantasy books of the early and mid 2000s. Katniss Everdeen, Tris Prior, Hermione Granger, and Annabeth Chase acted as molds for me to fit myself into. I admired their strength, I was pleased they were leads in a story everyone considered cool, and I watched thoughtfully as they received male approval both in fiction and in fandom. These not-like-other-girls type of warriors were power players in all the major media franchises rooted in the books of my childhood. Each of these young women led revolutions and reshaped their worlds through wit and war, but they were also never allowed to talk about real world issues, and they certainly never expressed any positive connection to femininity. They never would’ve admitted to loving their hair or deeply considered how best to style it, they wouldn’t have had another girl as their best friend, they wouldn’t bristle at boys and men hitting on them, they wouldn’t call out the gendered violence in their past or the racism they were still facing. But you know who does? Briana Matthews, or Bree, in Bloodmarked.
Bloodmarked by Tracy Deonn is the second novel in the Legendborn series. We pick up virtually right where the first book ends, as our protagonist Bree has learned she is both a descendant of powerful Rootcrafters and the long-dead Welsh King Arthur. As a result, her life gets exponentially more complicated. Bree’s almost-boyfriend has been kidnapped because the very old, white, conservative community of the Legendborn (descendants of the Knights of the Round Table and their supporters) are upset that Bree is Arthur’s progeny rather than him because she is a young Black girl. Selwyn Kane (Merlin’s descendent who is an unspecified percentage incubus) is having his position as personal guard of Arthur’s knight threatened despite his loyalty to Bree, Nick, and the Legendborn. Bree must navigate the many identities thrust upon her, very few of which she chose for herself. And, of course, we have the Bree-Nick-Sel love triangle woven throughout because we are reading a YA novel. There are many more lovely characters and a slew of terminology I won’t recap here, but in Bloodmarked, we find out just how powerful Bree is and just how corrupt the Legendborn institution is.
In this Bloodmarked book review, we want to point out that Deonn doesn’t rework or subvert the Chosen One narrative as so many novels do to varying degrees of success. Rather, she reintroduces us to a mold that Bree can fit into, and there is power in that. I can only imagine how many Black women grew up reading the same YA novels I did who are having their inner child healed by seeing Bree pick up Excalibur, be told she’s the Chosen One, and be the center of the love triangle. Women and misogyny-affected people as a whole get a new version of the heroine we have always felt was incomplete. This is the benefit of reclaiming rather than reinventing.
The Legendborn series does what the Hunger Games trilogy attempted in a much more nuanced and effective way by including intersectionality and addressing issues in more than just allegory. Suzanne Collins was certainly a trailblazer with her wild success and scathing critique of capitalism, but it was just too easy to completely overlook the point of her series. This is obvious when we see how the marketing campaigns for the Hunger Games film adaptations were filled with “the capital” eye shadow palettes and empty interviews asking Jennifer Lawrence about her diet. Middle America did not read or watch The Hunger Games and come away deeply uncomfortable with government propaganda and wealth inequality; they came away entertained by the charades the story warns us about. This is to say nothing of the stark whiteness of the books and narrow-minded view of what kinds of girls are worth listening to. Bloodmarked, however, does not fall into these pitfalls. Characters of color, queer characters, and girls exhibiting all different levels of and relationships with femininity fill the pages. They are all refreshingly open about the issues they face, and not just because they are descended from the Knights of the Round Table. Bree and Alice get to call people ‘fucking racist’ when it applies, pronouns are respected without much fanfare, and the love triangle is actually a triangle, as the three central characters have all fallen for each other at one time or another (I’m personally really rooting for this to end in polyamory). You can’t miss Deonn’s intentions the way so many missed Collins’.
How does Deonn achieve this? In part it is because Bloodmarked doesn’t worry about being timeless; it is written for its audience. People outside of the target demographic will undoubtedly enjoy this book. I recently aged out of the YA primary audience and still fell in love with every part of this story, but Deonn doesn’t swing hopelessly wide to gain mass appeal. There are jokes about being ‘witchy’ that only young women who dabble with or at least know of crystals will understand, Black southern culture is woven throughout without translating for anyone who isn’t already familiar, and other elements that root this complex fantasy world in the experience of a young Black girl in 2022 are apparent. This is something that feels natural in the story and doesn’t have the unfortunate undertone that screams of a thirty-something white man who stumbled upon urban dictionary and is desperately trying to make his Netflix show about teenagers feel authentic. The way Bloodmarked leans into its audience and its place in the cultural zeitgeist has an ironically timeless effect, not unlike the way Jane Austen wrote about microcosms of English society and ended up revealing universal human truths. Bloodmarked has some truths of its own to share.
So what makes Bree such a unique, and in this reviewer’s opinion, virtually perfect protagonist? This Bloodmarked book review wants to answer that question. Within the world of Legendborn, the descendant of Arthur is being awakened, which is secret society lingo for coming into their power, and it means war is imminent, so everyone must listen to their new king. Every time I saw the word ‘king’ printed on the page referring to Bree while still using she/her pronouns, my heart skipped a beat. This is enigmatic of a larger theme in Bloodmarked of our main character not having to cut away parts of herself to fit this mold, but rather making it fit her. We see this symbolized through Bree’s hair, which takes up space and remains a priority in her life. We see this in the way Bree has her own internal magic through the women of her family line that is not only not dependent on the Knights of the Round Table, but absolutely terrifies them. We see this in the way that Bree rejects the parts of these worlds she has been thrust into that don’t serve her, no matter how honored people expect her to feel. Bree is a revolutionary and a king while still being a sixteen-year-old girl, which is something Katniss, Tris, Annabeth, and Hermione never got to do.
In this Bloodmarked book review, I hope I articulated what it is that makes this story feel groundbreaking, but truthfully, it is not just one aspect of the novel. This book will impact different people in unique ways, and yet it is still so much more than its identity politics. Bloodmarked is full of characters we can latch onto and root for that feel whole and lived in, it has the emotional growth and resonance you need to anchor a fantasy story like this, and it has some of the most complex and decidedly unique worldbuilding we have seen since Tolkien. Bree is the perfect YA fantasy heroine, and Bloodmarked and its predecessor Legendborn are the perfect YA fantasy books.
‘Bloodmarked’ published on November 8, 2022
This article was written by Subjectify contributor Megan Peterson. Look for more recommendations like this Bloodmarked book review on our books page.