Giveaways Inspirations and Influences

COURT OF FIVES: Kate Elliott on Inspirations & Influences ( & Giveaway)

In which Kate Elliott talks Court of Fives, history, myth making and Cleopatra

“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their Inspirations and Influences. In this feature, we invite writers to talk about their new books, older titles, and their writing overall.

Veteran Fantasy author Kate Elliott is about to have her first YA novel released – the excellent Court of Fives. We invited the author to talk about some of the things that inspired and influenced the story.

Kate Elliott Court of Fives

Please give a warm welcome to Kate Elliott!


History and myth making often get intertwined. History is tricky. There are facts–George Washington was the first president of the United States–but not everything gets remembered and written down, and even if it is written down in the past it doesn’t necessarily get passed on into “common knowledge.” Facts and events get discarded as unimportant or as not fitting the story people think is realistic. Like the guy in the late 1970s who said to me, “There were no women composers before the 20th century.” He believed that because at that time none were mentioned in the music history he was taught.

Sometimes the history we think we know has become a form of myth making.

In this context I want to briefly discuss Cleopatra–one of the most famous women in history– and how the story of Cleopatra influenced Court of Fives even though the novel isn’t about her and isn’t inspired by her life.

Court of Fives is inspired by Little Women, by epic fantasy which I’ve written for years, by my wanting to write a story that’s also a love letter to female athletes, by the history of Hawaii, and by my husband’s work at an archaeological site in Egypt dating from the Greco-Roman period, a period when first Macedonians/Greeks and after them the Romans ruled over the Egyptian population.

So the quick, potted, simplified history: When Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, he left an empire that stretched from Greece to India. What he did not leave was a strong adult male heir. After his death his generals fought over his empire for thirty years (trust me, they were not nice guys).

One of these generals, Ptolemy, went to Egypt to grab territory for himself. Besides being an incredibly rich country, exporting grain, gold, and papyrus, Egypt also was located conveniently off to one side of the main imperial territory, which meant that most of the thirty years of fighting took place in other areas and left Egypt itself relatively unscathed.

There’s a lot more I could write about Ptolemy but I’m just going to mention that he founded what we now call the Ptolemaic dynasty. He and his descendants ruled Egypt for almost three hundred years.

Our Cleopatra is actually Cleopatra VII because she is the seventh Cleopatra to be queen. She was the last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty. After she died Rome made Egypt a province. Because the Ptolemies came into Egypt as outsiders they were careful to style themselves both as kings in the Macedonian/Greek tradition and also as pharaohs in the Egyptian tradition. So Cleopatra is not only the last ruler of the Ptolemaic dynasty, she is also (I believe) the last pharaoh of Egypt.

Let me tell you the three main things I learned about Cleopatra when I was young.


1. She is the historical epitome of the exotic erotic seductress. She used her sexy feminine wiles to seduce two different powerful Roman men, Julius Caesar and then Mark Antony, because obviously she needed a powerful man’s support to hold on to power.


2. When all failed (as it was obviously doomed to do, her being an ambitious woman), she killed herself supposedly from the bite of a poisonous snake.


3. The third lesson I learned from her story was about appropriate rulership and political power.

This is how that story goes: That the last Ptolemaic ruler was a woman is a sign of how the dynasty had become degenerate. Only weak dynasties can ever be ruled by women. You know a dynasty is on its last legs if all you have left is a woman to take power.

This is myth making in the sense of how we define ourselves and our history and how we understand how the world should properly work. We define these things through the stories we tell.

In fact, as I learned much later, Cleopatra VII came from a tradition of powerful queens. She wasn’t the first (and thus first, last, and only) ruling queen in the Ptolemaic dynasty. A number of women co-ruled and ruled before her. Even in the larger Hellenistic world — the world that begins with Alexander the Great’s death and ends with Cleopatra’s death — you find women playing prominent political roles and even in some cases going to war themselves.

Cleopatra as ruler is not an anomaly. She was an extraordinary woman — make no mistake — but in her time and place she was not doing anything that had never been seen before or that was even hugely unusual.

She made alliances with Rome–with or without sex involved–because she was good at diplomacy and strategy. Multiple independent kingdoms were being swallowed up by the expanding Roman Republic at this time; she wanted Egypt to remain independent. She accompanied her fleet and her army, and she wasn’t the first queen to do so.

She was purportedly the first of the Ptolemies to be able to converse in Egyptian (the court language was Greek), and was also famous for speaking so many languages that she would answer servants and envoys and diplomats in their own language, not through a translator.

She studied extensively at the famous Library of Alexandria. Here is a scroll–a legal document–that may have her writing on it.


The main text is a scribe’s writing but at the bottom you can see, in a different hand, a phrase that basically means the equivalent of “Make it so.” Not everyone agrees that this is her writing and obviously it can’t be proved or disproved; I’m not scholarly enough to join a side, but I do like the idea that it could have been her.

Yet what was the story I was told about her? That she used sex, the woman’s weapon.


Popular culture never showed me how she portrayed herself:

here on a coin:


or here presenting her son Caesarion to the gods as co-ruler:


In Court of Fives the main character is a girl named Jessamy. I use Greco-Roman Egypt as a template for my fantasy world. It’s not an historical novel, and I make no attempt to re-create the societies of that time; rather, I draw from the dynamic and the history. For example, in Efea — the country where Jes lives — the rulers and upper class are outsiders and the indigenous people are subjects.

As I was writing I took to heart the story of Cleopatra. People often say that history is written by the conquerors and that history has an agenda. This is true of how the Romans wrote about Cleopatra and certainly true of how later historians and tale tellers turned Cleopatra into the seductress queen rather than the hard-headed, ambitious, and fiercely intelligent woman she obviously was.

It’s that gap between myth and history that is part of what inspired me to write Court of Fives because, in my story, the history and religion of Jes’s mother’s people has been buried, just as so many aspects of the history of our own world have been discarded or covered up or simply lost through disinterest or contempt.

This interrogation of the standard history-we’ve-been-taught is something I think novels, and fiction in general, can do so well. We can write history, we can reflect on how myth making becomes intertwined with history. But novels and stories give us an incredibly effective voice to bring overlooked and forgotten stories back into our consciousness, to give them life, and to make them vivid enough to stick in our imaginations.

Through story, we remake the mythology of the past and build a new narrative of the world.

About the author:

Kate Elliott has been writing stories since she was nine years old, which has led her to believe that writing, like breathing, keeps her alive. As a child in rural Oregon, she made up stories because she longed to escape to a world of lurid adventure fiction. She now writes fantasy, steampunk, science fiction, and YA.

It should come as no surprise that she met her future husband in a sword fight. When he gave up police work to study archaeology, they and their three children fell into an entirely new set of adventures amid dusty Mexican ruins and mouthwatering European pastry shops. Eventually her spouse’s work forced them to move to Hawaii, where she took up outrigger canoe paddling. With the three children out of the house, they now spoil the schnauzer.



Court of Fives

We have one copy of Court of Fives to give away. The sweepstakes is open to ALL and will run until August 30 11:59 AM EST. To enter, use the form below. Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway


  • Dolorosa
    August 18, 2015 at 5:13 am

    I have been looking forward to reading this book so much, and everything I read about just makes me want it more!

  • Gerd D.
    August 18, 2015 at 5:21 am

    I see there’s a lot I missed about ancient history, my view of Cleopatra so far certainly didn’t do her justice.

  • Nikki Egerton
    August 18, 2015 at 5:45 am

    I recently studied a broad history university course and found the section on Cleopatra simply fascinating, particularly the different portrayals of her given in writing at the time (always with an agenda)
    This has made me eager to read Court of Fives!

  • Paul Weimer
    August 18, 2015 at 6:12 am

    Love the pictures and background in this post. Thanks, Kate

  • Lexi
    August 18, 2015 at 7:27 am

    The backstory was a fun read and makes me look forward to the book.

  • Sam Taylor
    August 18, 2015 at 8:11 am

    What a fascinating looking at Cleopatra’s history, and the historic tensions that influenced this novel. Kate Elliot never ceases to amaze me with her intelligence and insights.

  • Mary A
    August 18, 2015 at 8:27 am

    Thanks for the giveaway. It looks like a great read.

  • Alice Wu
    August 18, 2015 at 8:51 am

    Thanks so much for the giveaway! I really want to read this book!

  • Francene
    August 18, 2015 at 9:59 am

    I’ve been reading a lot about this book from a variety of authors and bloggers whose opinions I trust. I’d really like to get a copy of this. Keep up the great work. Fascinating backstory.

  • VanessaRenee
    August 18, 2015 at 10:43 am

    I love Kate Elliot’s books so much.

  • Crystal Hilbert
    August 18, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    Sounds like an interesting premise. I’m excited to read it.

  • Meghan
    August 18, 2015 at 12:16 pm

    Sounds so good. Love hearing her thoughts about Cleopatra. Looking forward to reading it! It will be my first Kate Elliot book although I have heard lots of buzz around her name.

  • Sharon
    August 18, 2015 at 1:00 pm

    Can you believe I haven’t read Kate Elliott yet? I’ve read so much ABOUT her, but I haven’t quite known where to start. But after this essay, I really want to start here!

  • Timitra
    August 18, 2015 at 1:09 pm

    I like the sound of Court Of Fives, thanks for the chance to win a copy!

  • Susan
    August 18, 2015 at 1:22 pm

    Court of Fives sounds like it’s going to be another great book from Kate Elliot. Her world building os always some of the best.

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  • Katy K.
    August 18, 2015 at 6:06 pm

    I’m so looking forward to this book! And thank you for the thoughts on Cleopatra. As a side note, anytime you want me to sing you some songs by 13th-century women composers, let me know! I have learned them in part to disprove the theory that women didn’t compose.

  • Jennifer T
    August 18, 2015 at 6:29 pm

    I am looking forward to read this book, and I try to not read much about it, in case of spoilers. There are other books of Kate Elliot I want to try but I am so weak to new shiny things and reading a book when it’s new that I have decided to wait for this one before reading other ones.

  • Niki
    August 18, 2015 at 6:42 pm

    Y’know, I’ve not yet had the opportunity to read any of Kate Elliott – I should really rectify that.

  • Kelley
    August 18, 2015 at 6:45 pm

    Sounds interesting! Would love to try it 🙂

  • Lesley D
    August 18, 2015 at 7:47 pm

    I’m looking forward to this book! Thanks for the giveaway 🙂

  • srs
    August 18, 2015 at 8:56 pm

    This looks super interesting!

  • Stephanie
    August 18, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    Kate Elliott has quickly become one of my most anticipated fantasy writers after reading The Spiritwalker Trilogy, which is honestly one of my favorite trilogies ever.

  • CJ @ Sarcasm&Lemons
    August 18, 2015 at 11:16 pm

    Such a great essay! I got some of the Hellenistic flavor from reading CoF, but I never would have realize how Cleopatra inspired it. It’s so true; she was a strong and powerful queen, but all history remembers is that she slept with Caesar. One of my favorite aspects of CoF, actually, was how Jes unravels the myth that the Patrons have come to see as fact.

    Sarcasm & Lemons

  • Paula
    August 19, 2015 at 2:23 am

    Sounds great and I also really like the cover!

  • Hebe
    August 19, 2015 at 1:55 pm

    A really thought-provoking post – I didn’t know any of that about Cleopatra either. I love that her handwriting might be on that paper.

  • Eve
    August 19, 2015 at 3:52 pm

    Thanks for the giveaway. Can’t wait to read it!

  • B R Sanders
    August 19, 2015 at 5:55 pm

    This book looks AMAZING. I am so excited to read it!

  • Mary Preston
    August 19, 2015 at 9:12 pm

    A fascinating post thank you.

  • whitewolfreads
    August 19, 2015 at 10:51 pm

    I love anything that is ancient Greek/Roman/Egyptian and oddly enough I’ve been on an Egyptian kick lately so I enjoyed reading Kate’s thoughts on Cleopatra. And of course I’m rally looking forward to reading the book. ~Jess

  • Karen Blue
    August 20, 2015 at 11:05 am

    This book sounds awesome! Thanks for all the insider info.

  • Alexandra the Great
    August 20, 2015 at 6:09 pm

    I am an historian with an MA in Cultural Studies, and this post delights me. The way that we teach and portray history is SO important, in school, general culture, and in novels. So baaaasically this means I can’t wait to read Court of Fives.

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  • whimsyful
    August 21, 2015 at 10:31 am

    I remember learning a little about Cleopatra and the vastly different interpretations of her in school, so I found this fascinating, and I’m definitely looking forward to Court of Fives!

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  • Vildea
    August 23, 2015 at 3:10 pm

    I haven’t actually read any of Kate Elliott’s books before, though I have Cold Magic up on my TBR list to be read sometime in September, so I’m really looking forward to that (and Black Wolves sound right up my alley!). I love reading people’s inspirations and influences for creating/making stuff (art, writing etc.) and this was a lovely read!

  • Alison
    August 23, 2015 at 3:47 pm

    I can’t wait to read this book!

  • SG
    August 25, 2015 at 12:36 am

    I haven’t read anything by Kate Elliott yet, but this sounds really good.

  • Emma
    August 25, 2015 at 5:15 pm

    I’m so excited for this book! I love the Cleopatra influence.

  • Yun-A
    August 26, 2015 at 11:58 am

    I loved the history lesson on Cleopatra. I can’t wait to see what the author’s world looks like.

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