Recasting a Once and Future King: Tracy Deonn Talks Bloodmarked

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Recasting a Once and Future King: Tracy Deonn Talks <i>Bloodmarked</i>

When Legendborn first hit shelves in 2020, author Tracy Deonn transported readers into a world of living Arthurian legend—but one fraught with the colonialism and privilege of that heritage. Early college student Bree, at sixteen, is searching for justice over her mother’s death, and when she starts to see magic, demons, and the hush-hush secret society battling them, she follows her gut. She infiltrates the society, determined to find the truth about what happened to her mother, certain that vengeance will relieve her grief.

She discovers that the Order are the heirs to the knights of the Round Table, and King Arthur himself. For years, the spirits of the knights have blessed their heirs with gifts of supernatural strength, speed, and magic to battle the demons that infiltrate the world. They have pledged to keep humanity safe until one day the war with the demons will be won. But despite that pledge, the Order has its own history of cruelty and injustice, whether through the violence of manipulating governments and systems to keep their own in power or through actual violence against individuals they view as threats—or as less than people.

Allied with Nick, an Order-bound Scion with whom Bree has an instant connection, Bree starts to uncover the secrets to her past. But the problem is the truth is much more complicated than Bree ever imagined, and her own family legacy links her to the very Order she’s trying to undermine. As she comes into her power at the end of Legendborn, she believes that she can make a change in the society—and rescue a kidnapped Nick. Instead, in Bloodmarked, the Order’s leaders want to keep Bree, and her mysterious powers, off the playing field. Disappointed and betrayed, Bree and her friends strike out on their own, and discover that they’ve only begun to see the truth of the world around them.

There are more spells in play than Merlin’s, and more powers in the world than knights and demons. For Bree to learn how to use her own gifts, she has to seek them out—and find a way to make those powers her own.

With the release of Bloodmarked, this exciting Arthurian reimagining moves the story into its second volume, filled with action, magic, and complicated romance—but also grief and inequality, systemic oppression, and what those in power will do to stay in power. Readers of the first volume will not be disappointed to see how the story moves forward—and will be eagerly waiting for more of the series after the novel’s ominous ending.

We got a chance to talk with Deonn about the series, Arthuriana, and the extras that readers should watch for!

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Paste Magazine: After Legendborn came out, you wrote an awesome Tor.com essay about Arthur retellings as fanfiction. This rings so true, especially when Arthurian legends get transplanted onto a different region. The Legendborn books lean into the American setting, into magic that is literally seeped into the ground through blood and tears. When you started envisioning Bree’s world, what were the aspects of Arthurian legend that were important for you to keep? What was most important for you to throw away, so you could begin it anew?

Tracy Deonn: My approach was to start with Bree as a character, and focus on the themes and messages I wanted to explore through her story. In that way, I used Bree’s journey as a lens through which to view Arthuriana rather than the other way around.

Like previous Arthurian writers, I treated the canon of Arthuriana like a very large toolbox and selected the imagery, characters, and stories that most aligned with my specific exploration of grief, legacies, power, intergenerational trauma and power, and, of course, I looked for fun and flashy magic to play with! I don’t know that I’ve actively thrown anything out, but rather I approached the world the way that previous other Arthurian writers have, which is through their own lived experiences and contexts. I drew on what called to me.

Paste: In that same essay (and your author’s note in Legendborn), you wrote that you started writing Legendborn from a place of grief. Bree’s feelings start out so raw, and her struggle with grief is so real. What was writing Bree’s emotional journey like for you?

Deonn: The first kernel of Legendborn was born when I lost my mother. At that time, I learned that she had lost her mother at the same age that I lost her, and that the same had occurred with my grandmother and great-grandmother—a strange pattern with no explanation. I was raised on science fiction and fantasy, so I immediately began to imagine a girl who could go on an epic, magical journey to find out why her mother died.

That girl became Bree and that journey is the core of Legendborn, and so when Bree found triumph and a type of closure in that book, it really echoed and fed my own experience. Writing Legendborn was its own sort of therapy, but talking to readers who have also experienced grief and who love Bree makes me feel more connected and grounded to my own emotional journey. It’s very full circle.

Paste: When you set out to write Legendborn and knew its shape, did you know where the rest of the story was headed? How much about Bloodmarked did you know needed to be part of the story when you wrote it? (On your website, you note that it was planned as a trilogy.)

Deonn: Yes! You’re right in that it was sold as a planned trilogy, meaning I had synopses for three books in mind and written down. I knew the big emotional beats of Bloodmarked and where it was heading, but I will say that the characters’ emotional journeys are my true north as I write.

It’s more important to me that the book be driven by Bree and the other characters’ choices, and that those choices make solid sense, than it is to hold on to scenes I had in mind three or four years ago. So, to some degree, I’ve learned to let their journeys guide me as I plan the series.

Paste: Bree and Alice share these moments of making references back and forth to each other that shows how well read (and also nerdy) they are. Were you a King Arthur nerd at Bree’s age? Or did you come to Arthuriana later?

Deonn: I was a pretty nerdy and geeky kid! I read a lot, watched a lot of tv shows, devoured comic books.

I enjoyed King Arthur, but truly fell in love with Arthuriana as a canon of possibilities when I read Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising Sequence in middle school.I saw a boy reading that book in fifth grade, and couldn’t get the cover image out of my mind. Once I picked it up myself a year later, I was hooked.

Paste: Bree’s identity as a Black girl is core to the narrative. She mentions early on in Legendborn that she was from a mostly white high school, and she continues on into a very white Order. Black girls haven’t often gotten to star in Arthurian retellings, and Bree’s perspective feels transformative as a reinvention of that folklore. How do you hope readers respond to Bree as a character, and what takeaways do you hope they bring with them into future retellings they may encounter?

Deonn: I hope that readers see in Bree a bit of American history as it plays out on the micro level, in the daily lived experience and journey and mind of a teenage Black girl living in the modern day. I also hope that Bree’s journey, which is driven so much by her emotional arc and desires, shows that a Black girl’s internal journey is valid and powerful.

In terms of future retellings, I believe in holding canon loosely in one hand while looking for opportunities to reimagine or re-organize it in the other. I would love to help show that stories can be living things, and that one execution of one story doesn’t necessarily negate or invalidate the other. And sometimes, reimaginings can help us see parts of the original story that we may have otherwise missed, which is really neat to witness as both a reader and creator.

Paste: In fantasy, there’s frequently a feeling of wholesale invention when it comes to magic. With traditional spiritual traditions, like rootwork, fictionalizing the framework has a slightly different feel. You write in the Legendborn author’s note that the rootcraft Bree encounters is fictional; how did you balance the needs of using root in the story with the need to pay homage to that real-world tradition?

Deonn: I approached this with the intention of borrowing from core tenets from rootwork and other traditions that include ancestral veneration, but not borrowing specific and very real rituals, or specific practices and beliefs. I don’t know that I’m paying homage per se, particularly because there is no single way of practicing rootwork, but I knew I wanted to draw on a tradition that had a real-world history and relationship with enslavement.

For all of these reasons, it was critical to me to include an Author’s Note to address these issues and make clear that I am writing fiction with certain themes and objectives in mind.

Paste: Included in the Legendborn paperback is a short story you wrote from one of the other characters’ perspectives. Should readers be on the lookout for more stories like that as they sink into Bloodmarked?

Deonn: Yes! I really loved digging into Sel’s perspective in the Legendborn paperback short story. In the Bloodmarked Barnes & Noble Exclusive edition, I wrote an expanded version of an existing chapter in Bloodmarked and chose to do it through not one or two but three POVs! That story is written from Bree, Nick, and Sel’s perspectives and serves as a prequel of sorts to the Legendborn Cycle series.

I love playing with different voices, and while my focus is always on Bree, it’s wonderful to show how other characters think and operate. I use these types of short stories to send readers back to the novels with more information than they had before, hopefully making for a fun re-read of certain scenes in the novels themselves.

Bloodmarked is now available from Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers.

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