Legendborn by Tracy Deonn is an urban fantasy story about a young Black woman infiltrating an order of all white mages, fighting demons, and uncovering her own heritage. I just finished reading it, and to the surprise of all, I am impressed. Not with everything, mind you. The fight scenes are terrible, and the emotional description leans heavily toward melodrama. But the plotting is strong, the characters are solid, and the love triangle is truly brilliant.
Love triangles have a bad reputation, possibly because they often show up in stories about women, but they’re a perfectly viable trope. When done correctly, a love triangle spices up the story’s romance, adding conflict and delicious drama as the lovebirds clash and play off one another. Legendborn features the best love triangle I have seen in quite some time, and it has valuable lessons to teach us.
Spoiler Notice: Legendborn
The Love Interests Are Distinct
The first thing a love triangle needs is two love interests who are clearly different from each other. That might sound obvious, but a lot of authors miss it, crafting two suitors who are essentially the same person. That defeats the whole point of a love triangle! A protagonist falling in love with two contrasting people is essential to keep things compelling, and the less alike the suitors are, the better.
Legendborn has us covered. Protagonist Bree has two boys making eyes at her, Nick and Selwyn, and they couldn’t be more different. Nick is the first to be introduced, and he is a romance archetype we call the out-of-leaguer, meaning that he doesn’t seem like someone the hero could ever get a date with. Nick’s a straight-A student, well respected on campus, and did I mention he’s also the king-in-waiting for a mystical order of demon hunters? Personality wise, Nick is kind, caring, and compassionate. He meets Bree where she is and gives her a rock to hold on to while the world is turned upside down around her.
In contrast, Selwyn is what we call a dangerous hottie. He initially suspects Bree of being in league with demons and is antagonistic toward her for at least the first half of the book. This is a classic enemies-to-lovers scenario, so until their feelings start to thaw, Deonn emphasizes how deadly and ruthless Selwyn is. Whereas Nick is the noble paladin, Selwyn is a sneaky rogue. One always does what’s right; the other is a consummate pragmatist. Selwyn is also a dark, broody boy with a tragic backstory, which helps generate some extra sympathy for him.
With this kind of contrast, there’s no way readers will ever get the two mixed up. If Deonn wants Bree to choose between them, that choice will have meaning. On the other hand, Deonn could also decide that Bree is polyamorous, at which point she’d clearly be getting something different from each lover.
We Know Why They Want Each Other
A compelling romance must set up why the lovebirds are better together than apart; otherwise, there’s no reason to care if they get together. We must see why the hero is attracted to the love interest and vice versa. For a good love story, there has to be more to this than a pretty face and a rockin’ bod. Fortunately, Legendborn delivers.
In addition to Nick being way hot, Bree is clearly into him because he wants to make the magical demon hunting order less racist. In addition to that noble goal, Nick also helps Bree investigate her mother’s mysterious death. When Bree can’t confide in her friends without breaking the masquerade, Nick is there to talk to.
It’s a little less obvious why Nick is into Bree, but a close reading shows that it’s largely a mirror image. Nick has been fed up with the order for years, so it’s easy for them to bond over shared distaste. At the same time, Nick also needs someone he can be himself with. Everyone in the order has expectations about what he’ll be as king, and he can’t really open up to anyone outside because they don’t know magic is real. Bree fills that need for him.
Since Selwyn is an enemy at first, it takes a while before the attraction starts to build. At first, he’s just a lethal badass, which is hot, but not exactly romance material. But as Selwyn realizes that Bree isn’t evil, a new side of their relationship develops. Even though Selwyn is entirely devoted to the order, he’s also alienated from it because of some demonic heritage. Bree doesn’t carry any of the order’s prejudices, which quickly endears her to Selwyn. Meanwhile, Selwyn’s self-sacrificing nature begins to win Bree over, and from there, they bond through shared adversity.
Toxicity Is (Mostly) Avoided
It’s our old friend, toxic romance tropes, the bane of love stories everywhere. Hetero romances in particular tend to suffer here, as we have so many harmful ideas of masculinity floating around, plus the inherent power imbalance that sexism creates. When I first cracked open Legendborn, I braced for the worst. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised.
Neither of the love interests is controlling, stalker-ish, or demeaning. When Bree and Nick reach the make-out phase of their love story, Nick never tries to pressure Bree into anything. Instead, he asks, and the story doesn’t treat it as awkward or unsexy as is so disappointingly common. Reading that section, it felt like a weight was lifted off my shoulders. I’m so used to toxic male love interests that the absence of it was freeing.
Selwyn is even more impressive. The enemies-to-lovers trope necessitates conflict between the lovebirds, and when those characters are hetero, it’s easy for gendered power dynamics to ruin everything. But that doesn’t happen in Legendborn. Selwyn never uses gendered slurs against Bree or says she must be irrational because of her emotions. Nor do we have one of those situations where the man is a complete ass and the woman is a little terse, only for the story to act like they were equally at fault. Instead, Selwyn is primarily hostile to Bree over a legitimate misunderstanding, where he thinks she’s a danger to the order’s mission. Once he realizes this isn’t the case, he stops antagonizing her.
I wish I could end this section here, but there is one fly in the ointment. On several occasions, both boys have a bad habit of grabbing Bree by the wrist when she wants to leave. This might be fine in the context of a physical fight, but in a romantic relationship, it violates Bree’s consent. The book tries to cover this by telling us that Bree didn’t really want to leave, but that’s not how it works. The boys can’t read Bree’s mind, so it’s on them to take her seriously no matter what she’s feeling.
Despite this issue, Legenborn’s romance has far less toxicity than any other I’ve read recently. It shows just how good a love story can be when it ditches the creeps and focuses on the fundamentals instead.
The Love Interests Are Connected
A really common problem in love triangles is that while each love interest is connected to the hero, they aren’t connected to each other. The triangle has no third side, making it more of a love V. Other than possibly being jealous, there’s nothing to make interactions between the love interests engaging.
I love the way Deonn addresses this problem: she gives Selwyn and Nick a long history together before either of them met Bree. The two boys were raised together, and Selwyn is actually bonded to Nick as his king’s mage, a position the order takes very seriously. They had a complicated relationship, with Selwyn even falling in love with Nick at one point, which I’m hoping Deonn explores more in the next book.
Capping off that history, there’s a deep rift between Nick and Selwyn over Nick’s status as heir. Basically, Nick has taken a public stance against the order because he thinks many of their practices are unjust. To someone as duty bound as Selwyn, this is a betrayal. Their relationship is further strained by Selwyn’s suspicion of Bree. They still care about each other, but there’s a lot of antagonism on top.
This deep relationship means that the entire love triangle is serving the story, not just the two lines that connect to the hero. Now please, everyone join me in crossing our fingers for a Bree-Nick-Selwyn triad in the sequel!
Romance Is Part of the Plot
No matter how compelling a romance is, if it’s separate from the plot, the story has a problem. When the hero abandons their high-stakes revenge quest to go on a fancy date, it splits readers’ attention. Readers who really like the romance will be bored during the plot, and readers who enjoy the plot will resent the romance. It’s a lose-lose situation.
There’s exactly one solution to this problem: make the romance part of the plot. I’m glad to say that Deonn and I are entirely on the same page here. Nick and Bree’s romance begins when she convinces him to help her infiltrate the order and find out what happened to her mother. Nick helps Bree to understand the magical world and to pass a series of trials that she isn’t trained for. This gives them plenty of time together.
Selwyn is a little more complicated. First, he and Bree are enemies, but that still gives them a chance to understand each other as they clash over Bree’s mysterious past. Later, the two of them investigate a shady plot by the order, which gives them a chance to bond as they find out more about their tragic backstories. By the end, they are moving toward a love forged in battle, though they aren’t quite there yet when the novel ends. That’s fine though; resolving everything in book one would mean there’s nothing left for book two.
When the romances are combined together with the main plot, both benefit. The story gets maximum use of its high-tension external plot, while the romances provide emotional attachment. It’s incredibly refreshing to find an author who doesn’t see her story as a competition between emotion and plot, and the book is better for it.
Legendborn is a story of a female hero in love with two dudes, but most of its lessons can apply to love triangles of all orientations. For that matter, they can apply to just about any romance, triangular or otherwise. I’ve lost track of how many stories just tell me that the lovebirds belong together without ever showing me why. I hope that Deonn’s book is read far and wide, because it has important lessons to teach writers.
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