In which we take a look at the first YA novel by Kate Elliott
Title: Court of Fives
Author: Kate Elliott
Publisher: Little, Brown
Publication Date: August 18 2015
Hardcover: 448 Pages
In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott begins a new trilogy with her debut young adult novel, weaving an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.
Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But at night she can be whomever she wants when she sneaks out to train for The Fives, an intricate, multi-level athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors. Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an unlikely friendship between a girl of mixed race and a Patron boy causes heads to turn. When a scheming lord tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test Kal’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a powerful clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.
Stand alone or series: First in a new trilogy
How did we get this book: ARCs from the publisher
Format (e- or p-): Ebook
Jessamy is a young woman whose life is precariously built on the whims of a society on the cusp of breakdown and change. The mixed race daughter of an upper class Patron and his Commoner partner, Jessamy’s family has lived under arbitrary rules that consistently oppress in a myriad of ways. Still, for the most part, theirs is a loving family on the way to the top as the father climbs up the ladder within the army and under the patronage of a powerful man. On the side and in secret, Jessamy has been training to compete in the multi-level athletic course of the Fives and she is really good at it.
Then, their powerful sponsor suddenly dies and Jessamy’s father is under an unattainable position. The swift, implacable choice he makes changes everything. Jessamy’s family is taken away. She herself is taken to become a full-time competitor for the Fives under the tutelage of the man who destroyed everything she holds dear.
Featuring super athletic ladies, a first class worldbuilding against the backdrop of a society divided by questionable, arbitrary of privilege and racial conflict, with a complicated power dynamics between the invader ruling class and the oppressed, conquered locals, Court of Fives follows Jessamy’s coming of age into adulthood.
The path there is fantastic: the way that the author slowly builds Jessamy’s arc in juxtaposition to that of her family (especially her mother and father) and of Efea, her country is a thing of beauty. I particularly loved the last third of the novel, where all the complexity of the worldbuilding really starts to unravel: from the symbolism behind the Fives to how it connects to elements of colonialism and resistance; from how women find their ways to each other to build relationships and resist against institutionalised misogyny to the mysteries surrounding the religious movements within Efea. And finally, how history is shaped by the powerful as well as by the oppressed in different ways.
One of my favourite things about the novel was to see Jessamy’s slowly becoming aware of the ways that she was both privileged and not. On one hand, her life up to a point had been good with her father and his sponsor allowing for Jessamy’s life to be one of relative comfort and freedom. On the other hand, it felt like she was completely oblivious to the ways – the small, daily, routine ways – that oppression can happen. To the point where her viewpoint to start with is that of a brat who thought she could do anything and was completely self-centred, unaware of everything else going inside her own house. But slowly, as she talks to people and experiences more of life, her viewpoint starts to change, until it coalesces into a stronger voice by the time the novel draws to its fantastic ending.
With that said, I was not entirely keen on the romantic subplot developed between Jessamy and Kal as I was reading but since finishing the book I have convinced myself that their relationship was not a romance: in fact, I would suggest otherwise. One of the things I disliked was how fast it progressed (although I did love how assertive she was) but it actually does make sense that Jessamy would be attracted to someone who would understand her, in companionship and in sharing the Fives. Plus, without that relationship, romantic bond or not, the ending would lose all of its punch.
This is pretty much a “first book” in a trilogy, laying down the foundations to something much bigger to come and this I felt very keenly with the first half of the novel and its slower progression. The last two thirds balance out the slow start in what I thought was a riveting, fascinating journey. And that ending. I can’t stress this enough: that ending was one of the coolest, fist bumpy endings I read for a while (au par with N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season). Bring on Spider, let her CRUSH HER ENEMIES.
Ever since I first learned of Court of Fives, I coveted it. Like many, I am a very big Kate Elliott fan–especially of her Spiritwalker books, which were initially, I think, positioned as YA but appeal to a crossover audience. While Cold Magic and its successors featured a young heroine, that series felt far more involved, for lack of a better word, in its design and worldbuiling. It also employed techniques and a strong central romance (which I loved) in a vein far more reminiscent of epic, journey fantasy.
In contrast, Court of Fives is clearly aimed at a Young Adult reading audience, and plays by familiar techniques. There is a heroine who, at first glance, seems to lack the confidence, beauty, or skill of her other sisters but is nevertheless special and important and unique; there is a conflict that threatens to tear the girl’s family and world apart; there is a pretty princeling boy that catches the attention of the heroine, and who is similarly ensnared by the heroine’s unique capabilities. While this setup might sound familiar (and, ok, it is), what sets Court of Fives apart from the baseline of enjoyable but ultimately forgettable YA fantasy is Elliott’s singular knack for creating immersive fantasy cultures and worlds based on historical research, an incisive eye towards social and racial commentary (with a focus on privilege of birth, and written from a feminist perspective), and some truly kickass action and adventure, to boot.
Ana has covered much of this in her part of the review, so I will chime in to say, yes, what she said but try to elaborate on my favorite parts of this novel. Namely, the Court of Fives itself, the incredible (and horrifying) reality that Jess and her family face as half-Patron, half-Commoner women in a world made for Patron men, the rewriting of history from the viewpoint of the victor, and the diversity of characters that steps ever so sneakily over the line from “trope” to “subversion.” Allow me to elaborate, from the bottom up:
Jessamy is at first blush your everyday, everygirl heroine. She’s not as smart as her elder sisters, nor as beautiful as her flirtatious younger sister or twin sister. But what Jess lacks in beauty or book smarts, she more than makes up for with her skill on the court of Fives–though it would bring her much-loved father dishonor and threaten his already-precarious standing as a Patron lord (more on that in a bit). Jess feels alive when she runs the course, able to focus her mind and body on conquering obstacles, seeing patterns, and taking risks that others cannot or would not–this is Jess in her element. And as she discovers that inner-power, and becomes more comfortable taking risks and not second guessing her abilities or choices, that is where Court of Fives sings, especially on the character front. Similarly (and similar to the Spiritwalker books), I love that though Jess’s sister Amiable is portrayed as a “spoiled” (Jess’s words) flirt, she isn’t a vapid or horrible or lesser person–I love the glimpses that Elliott gives of Amiable’s motives (to provide for her sisters and family), and a surprising twist of relationship for this sister. This extends even more so to Jess’s father, and his ambiguous character–I love that he isn’t painted as a pure villain, but he’s not some golden-hearted figure either. He’s an ambitious man, who loves his wife and family and has made sacrifices… to a point. And I love that Jessamy grows up in this story in part by seeing her father for the flawed man that he actually is, not the idealized man she has thought of him as for her entire life.
Another strong point in Court of Fives is the interpretation–or re-interpretation, or rewriting–of history. I love the world that Elliott has crafted in this first novel, with the divide between the Patron Saorese, and the conquered Commoner Efeans. Through Jess’s narrative, things seem rather simplistic at the outset–the Patrons have conquered and expanded their empire, the Efeans work in a state of free-market bliss under the Patrons, and though there are hiccups in the chain of command, the fabric of society is hale and smooth. This is incredibly naive, and we start to see this in earnest as everything is ripped away from Jess’s family in an instant, and especially in the last third of the book as Jess realizes the fate of her mother and sisters, and how the very lore she has learned and trusted in isn’t actually the complete, authoritative truth she thought it was. There are buried legends and gods, cities and histories that lie beneath the Saorese empire–these all will come to fruition in later books in the series. (I sincerely hope they do.) Similarly, as Ana has already talked about earlier, the racial and cultural questions that Elliott raises in this novel are superb–Jess is a girl of mixed birth and race, and in a culture where misogyny is institutionalized and celebrated on the Patron side, and clashes with the more matriarchal society on the Common side, Jess and her sisters are somewhere caught between receiving the worst of both worlds. It’s a hard, but beautifully written and examined divide, and one of the things I loved the most about Court of Fives.
And this is to say NOTHING of my favorite part of the book–the Fives itself. I am a huge sucker for action, especially in the form of an ultra competitive sporting event that brings its runners glory, or possible death. The game that Elliott creates here, with its mazes and trees and RINGS–especially the rings!–is utterly captivating and utterly awesome. Like I said, I’m a sucker for this kind of action, so I love, love, LOVE the court here.
So…what didn’t work in this novel? It felt to me, as a fan of Elliott’s other books and immersive worldbuilding, that a lot of that scaling and building was sanitized, removed from the front two-thirds of the book and then crammed into the last third with a vengeance. It’s frustrating because even if the intent was good, to ease into the world and allowing readers to discover the depths and intricacies of Saorese vs Efean culture, it also felt a little bit like holding back for a different audience. That’s perhaps an unfair assertion to make as Court of Fives walks the fine line between exploiting YA tropes and subverting them… but there it is. On that note, I also was not a fan of the romance in the book–like Ana, I felt it was a little boring, but I suppose understandable given Jess’s position. On the bright side, the romantic angle DID make the last page of the book that much more powerful–and I, for one, cannot wait to see what happens next.
Additional Thoughts: Kate Elliott has a guest post with us talking about the novel, her inspirations, history, myth making and… Cleopatra. Go here to read and for a chance to win a copy of the novel.
Ana: 8 – Very, very good
Thea: 7 – Very good, leaning towards an 8
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