Review: Court of Fives by Kate Elliott

Court-of-Fives-by-Kate-Elliott
Hardcover, 448 pages
Published: August 18th 2015 by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Source: Hachette Books

When I first read on Twitter that Kate was writing a YA novel, I squeed because what else can you do when one of your favourite authors writes a book in one of your favourite genres?

I may also have done a little jig but no one saw and I can pretend it didn’t happen. My happiness (some may call it delirium) stemmed from the fact that all the Kate Elliott books I have read have offered me the following things:

  • engrossing storytelling
  • sophisticated prose
  • diversity
  • fiesty protagonists
  • portrayals of sisterhood
  • exceptional worldbuilding
  • kisses

You will be glad to know (almost as glad I am to be able to tell you) that Court of Fives delivered on all counts. But first, the synopsis:

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. (source)

The synopsis does a fair job of describing the book but it doesn’t do the intricate relationships and layers at play in the novel any justice. For instance, the synopsis doesn’t mention that Jessamy is one of four sisters, Maraya, Bettany (Jessamy’s twin,) and Amaya, all of whom are complex individuals with their own lives and story arcs. The synopsis also doesn’t mention Jessamy’s mother who is one of the more interesting, non-antagonistic, parents in the YA genre. The synopsis most certainly doesn’t mention the incredibly complex relationship Jessamy has with her father. It does mention Kalliarkos, the inevitable love interest, but romance is at best a subplot of Court of Fives and not the entire point of it.

It is difficult to know where to begin to describe this novel but I shall start with the worldbuilding which is, as expected, detailed but not in the minute way Kate’s adult fantasy novels are. The description of the court where the fives are run, the market, the different peoples and their diverging histories are all given attention. Kate takes the time to immerse the reader into this world she has created for the story but at the same time there is the feeling that this world does not rely on the reader’s previous experience with fantastic worlds to come to life; it is whole in itself in the way it is created.

Court of Fives contains concurrent discussions on race, culture, and the systemic oppression of the natives by the people colonizing their land. The book also discusses the artificiality of written history as the past is often written by those who lack objectivity and who often shade events to show their sides of the story in the most favourable light thereby denying the losing side not just their culture and their history, but also a voice with which to make a difference. The book also has a minor discussion on physical disability as Maraya, Jess’s elder sister, has a twisted foot and is considered a defect by her father. This leads to an interesting discussion about whether a person’s worth is determined by her/his/their physical self.

Jessamy and her sisters are of mixed heritage; her father, though low-born, is a Patron while her mother is Efean. Because of their mixed heritage, Jess and her sisters have to constantly navigate their shifting identities as their selves are contextualized by the people they come in contact with. Jess is an intriguing character to unravel within the course of the narrative. Some of her choices do, initially, seem self-serving and for all that she is a protagonist, her flaws are often glaringly obvious. Her brashness is blunted by her obvious love for her sisters and her mother; I really loved the way Jessamy’s parents are portrayed in the novel. It is tempting to simply hate her father for his actions but Kate is careful to humanize him and, if not justify, then explain without excusing his choices where his family is concerned. Jessamy’s mother has the opposite narrative arc compared to her father: where Jessamy’s father begins the story with loads of power and agency which are gradually stripped away  as he is reduced to being a pawn someone else’s political play, Jessamy’s mother begins the story as a cossetted wife who loses everything and is forced, both for her own sake and for the sake of her children, to gather strength and find the will to live on.

The fives, a race run in a court full of obstacles, gains significance when the true history of the Efeans comes to light during the narrative. What has filtered through time and memory to become a simple sport, an extremely lucrative one but a sport nonetheless, used to mean a very different thing to the people of the past. The book hints at this deeper connection and I reckon we’re going to return and delve into this plot point further sometime in the sequel.

Now for the romance which I will be honest and say was my least favourite part of the story.

In a conversation with Jessamy’s father about his relationship with her mother:

“Did you fall in love with her at first sight?”

“No one can fall in love at first sight. Love is built over the years, not snapped into existence like a flame that can be easily extinguished. But I was so struck with her beauty and the pure joy in her laugh that something deep within me changed…”

There is the acknowledgement that love, true love, is more than the infatuation that begins many relationships. Kal and Jess’s relationship very much reads like young love and I appreciated the distinction that this conversation makes between young love and true love.

I am not the biggest fan of Kalliarkos simply because he feels too naive for all that he is a member of the nobility. I feel like he has a lot of growing up to do before he can become a worthy love interest. I’m not too worried though because by the end of the novel, he is well on his way to learning some home truths which will serve him well in the future.

I was most worried that Jessamy would turn into a lovelorn teenager which is okay because she is a teenager and deserves her moonstruck phase but lovelorn teenagers do not make for fun reading. I was very glad, then, that the novel ended in on a most interesting note where Jess reveals that at the core of her self lies a brilliant tactician and gives a glimmer of the woman she is becoming. There was no cliffhanger as the first book, though primarily focused on establishing the world and individuating the characters, does complete a narrative arc and contains a full story that can be read as a standalone. Yay.

So now we come to the end of this fangirly review though I hope I was discerning and remained objective during it. Court of Fives is a great book and a great start to a new trilogy. Kate Elliott has created a wonderful world peopled by complex characters who are living an incredible story. Strongly recommended. (As in, read it.)

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