Court of Fives: The dangers of imperialism, racism, and ambition

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Reposting to include Tadiana’s new review:

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsCourt of Fives by Kate Elliott YA fantasy book reviewsCourt of Fives by Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott has a well-deserved reputation for writing excellent science-fiction and fantasy for adults. Her characters, world-building, and societies are not only entertaining but well-crafted. It seems only natural that, at some point in her career, she would try her hand at Young Adult fiction. The result is Court of Fives, the first in a planned fantasy trilogy which is sure to appeal to younger readers as well as Elliott’s established fan base. While I’ve seen the novel described as “YA meets Game of Thrones,” Elliott herself has said, “I prefer Little Women meets American Ninja Warrior,” which is far more relevant to my personal interests (and a more unique combination).

A quick note for readers who may not be aware: American Ninja Warrior is a program which was recently adapted for American television from a long-running Japanese television series, Sasuke. Both shows feature a multi-stage obstacle course, and each stage must be completed by participants before they can move on to the next. Frequently, though not always, the stage must be finished within a certain time limit. For the most part, the obstacles are weighted toward male contestants, favoring strength and a range of body sizes which are generally not achieved by female contestants. Sasuke has also created a version of the obstacle course exclusively for women, called Kunoichi, which favors agility and balance and is engineered for smaller statures. None of this is required knowledge in order to enjoy Court of Fives, since Elliott creates the Fives course and its challenges from the ground up, but I always find it interesting to learn what elements of the real world have an influence on a writer’s choices. (And even though it only aired for eight seasons, I’m a big fan of Kunoichi.)

The City Fives Court is a massive circle comprised of four challenges which must be completed before tackling the fifth challenge at the center. Masked runners, who refer to respected opponents as “Adversaries,” must be the perfect combination of strong, agile, quick, brilliant, and ruthless in order to win the game; only the winner must unmask and reveal his or her true identity. Those who win can move up the ranks from Novice to Challenger to Illustrious, earning prize money and glory for themselves and their families. Competition among the training stables is fierce; competition among the runners is even fiercer. In a rigid society in which rules strictly govern everything a person may do, in which gender and race determine a person’s worth at the moment of their birth, a competition which is open to literally anyone who is physically capable of participating would have irresistible appeal to someone who chafes against those strictures.

Cue Court of Fives’ teenaged narrator, Jessamy Tonor. Jes is a natural strategist whose ambition and physical prowess would serve her well in the Fives if she were allowed to run. What stands in her way? She is the mixed-race daughter of Captain Esladas, a Saroese immigrant who has fought for each scrap of respect he has earned in the hopes that he can be more than a poor baker’s son, and Kiya, an Efean woman whose beauty and grace are unparalleled, yet that is not enough to make the Patron caste of Saroese conquerors overlook her dark skin and common birth. Patron men marry Patron women, and most then take a Commoner concubine, so the loving partnership between Esladas and Kiya is a popular topic of gossip. Esladas is a man of great ambition — truly, it drives his every action — and his devotion to Kiya and the four daughters they share is a significant detriment to his upward social climb. Sons would be valuable, in more than just marriageable terms, so Maraya, Jessamy, Bettany, and Amaya must be the epitome of well-bred Patron girls while knowing that the best they can hope for in life is to marry some lesser noble’s son. Many Patrons and Commoners alike despise the girls because they’re of mixed race. The fates have been set against Jessamy since before she was born, and it’s no wonder that she plots and schemes for something more than quiet domesticity.

Her sisters are no more pleased with the strict rules governing their lives, and Elliott gives each of them a distinct personality and life beyond Jes’ experiences. Maraya wants a scholarly life among the Archivists, Amaya loves poetry and the theatre, and Bettany seethes with rage against the world. One of the greatest pleasures of Court of Fives is when Jes realizes (to her great shame) that even though she loves her sisters dearly, her self-involvement is so extreme that she actually knows very little about them. She holds many assumptions about their aspirations and daily lives, and they’re all embarrassingly wrong. While Jes and the other girls resent their father’s determination to succeed at all costs, it’s a trait which Jes has inherited, and it drives her to the same ruthless behavior — with the same excuses and devastating consequences. It’ll be interesting to see, as the trilogy progresses, whether Jes will become self-aware enough to see the entirety of her similarities to her father, and what she will do to either change or embrace those tendencies.

The city of Saryenia is densely populated with a rich and full cast of characters, and it would be a disservice to the novel and its author for me to neglect mentioning many of them, if only in broad strokes. Lord Ottonor was Jes’ father’s patron until his untimely death (there are whispers of a poisoning). The cruel Lord Gargaron steps in to take Ottonor’s place, forcing her father to choose between a humble life with his family and a chance at greater glory. After very little hesitation, he casts his family aside with no provisions for their safety or future, and agrees not only to marry Gargaron’s niece, but to send Jes into training at Gargaron’s Fives stable. There she becomes acquainted with trainees like Mis, Gira, Shorty, and Talon, veteran runners like Inarsis and Lord Thynos, and Gargaron’s nephew, Lord Kalliarkos. While a great deal of competition exists between the runners, it doesn’t preclude them from being friends or spending leisure time together at the markets, which is a detail that I really appreciated. It would be so easy to turn the stable into a prison and pit everyone against Jes, but Elliott creates opportunities for Jes to fit into the life she’s always wanted, and that makes her need to succeed well enough to take care of her mother and sisters all the more pressing. Elliott doesn’t shy away from providing commentary on oppression and imperialism — both on a macro and micro level, from society as a whole to the politics of a household — and the effects of each on the oppressors and the oppressed. It’s potentially heavy stuff for the intended readers, but Elliott handles it well.

The one concession that I felt Elliott made in regards to writing for a YA audience was the romance between Jes and Kalliarkos. The course of the novel takes place over a short period of time — barely two weeks — and their mutual respect blossoms into a physical and emotional connection, the depth of which just didn’t ring true to me and, in the end, seemed deliberately manipulative of the reader’s assumptions. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting the situation, but what came across to me as teenage infatuation was given the gravitas of a long-term relationship. The parallels in this regard between Jes and her father were a little too bold-faced, especially when I’ve come to expect great emotional sensitivity and a higher level of subtlety from Elliott’s other work. It’s a minor complaint, though, and not enough to detract from my overall enjoyment of the novel.

Many YA fantasy novels are limited to the immediate world surrounding the protagonist, but Elliott doesn’t make that mistake. True, what the reader sees is tied to Jes’ experiences, but a wider world exists beyond what she’s been exposed to. The Efeans have their own history, language, and culture despite Saroese efforts to suppress them into servitude or slavery. Traders and sailors from other countries come to Saryenia to do business or make new lives for themselves. Even if Jes never travels with Amarans or Soldians, or travels to Dey, Elliott wants the reader to know that life exists beyond the narrow scope of Court of Fives, and I really appreciated that extra layer of world-building. If Jes does leave Efea in a later novel, I won’t feel as though Elliott is just making things up as she goes.

I could go on and on about Court of Fives — what I liked, what I loved, how badly I want the sequel to come out next week, etc. I’ll stop myself here so as to avoid drifting into spoilers, since there are so many interesting plot twists and character developments which should be surprises. While billed as Young Adult, it’s certainly accessible and enjoyable for adult fans of Elliott’s work, as well as readers of either group who are new to her novels. Definitely recommended, with high anticipation for the next installment.

~Jana Nyman


Court of Fives by Kate Elliott YA fantasy book reviewsKate Elliott vaults into the YA fantasy game field with Court of Fives, which, as Jana noted, the author aptly describes as “Little Women meets American Ninja Warrior in a setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt.” This three-pronged description calls out three of the most noteworthy aspects of Court of Fives: the subtle references to Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, accentuating the importance of family relationships to this story; the challenging physical game called Fives, which adds excitement and reflects the competitive nature of both Jessamy, the main character, and her father, as well as the political intrigue that drives much of the plot of this novel, and is echoed in a hair-raising venture in the last part of the book; and the richly described setting of the Egyptian-like country called Efea, occupied and ruled over by the so-called Patrons from Saro, with the Efean people suffering the many prejudices and cruelties, large and small, that come with occupation and with being a subject race of people.

Jana has eloquently described the game of Fives and the imaginative world-building in Court of Fives. The homage and links to Little Women are another intriguing aspect of this novel, which, like Little Women, centers on a family with four daughters with distinct personalities, a loving, patient and insightful mother, and a father who is largely absent from the family due to war. In fact, the names and personalities of the daughters in Court of Fives bear more than a passing resemblance to the March family in Little Women:

  • Maraya, the eldest daughter, is an analog of responsible Meg March.
  • Jessamy or Jes, like Jo, is the main character, impulsive and strong-minded, often overlooking the concerns of the people around her in her relentless pursuit of her goal to compete at the Fives, yet equally single-minded in her determination to help her family when she becomes aware of need, regardless of any personal cost or risk.
  • Bettany, who in this novel is defined chiefly by her powerful anger and resentment, is at first glance the polar opposite of the gentle, sweet, ailing Beth. In fact, Bettany barely appears in Court of Fives at all, perhaps reflecting, in a sense, Beth’s quietness. Bettany’s connection with Beth is touched on in some amusing ways: when the girls’ father comes home from the war, Bettany absents herself from greeting him with the excuse that she is sick, when in reality she is fuming about their family’s situation. And later, when Bettany plans to run away from home, she suggests that her sisters tell her father that she has died.
  • Amaya, like Amy, is quick and intelligent, but at least at first is overly focused on social position and on her physical attractiveness.

As well, Kalliarkos, Jessamy’s love interest, has some distinct similarities to Jo’s friend Laurie, particularly with his wealthy and privileged background and his ease of making friends with others, regardless of their social class. I concur with Jana that the obligatory romantic relationship was ― as is frequently the case in young adult fiction ― a case of insta-love and felt rather unrealistic, but the cross-class and interracial aspects of Jes and Kal’s relationship did function as an interesting echo of her parents’ relationship and re-emphasized the conflicts between their two cultures.

After developing this conceit initially, it seems that Elliott for the most part abandons it as the story moves along; the actual plot of Court of Fives bears no real resemblance to Little Women. However, similar themes are explored throughout both books: the significance of the characters’ family relationships, the role of duty and self-sacrifice in the choices they make, and coming of age, as Jes matures and learns to make difficult choices.

My imagination was captured by Court of Fives’ Roman-based society, with the highly stylized, competitive ― and dangerous ― obstacle course games in its coliseums rather than gladiator fights and feeding Christians to lions. The fantasy aspect was handled with a light touch, showing up infrequently as part of the power of the Patrons’ priests and in an unexplained force that Jes and her group encounters later in the book.

Overall, Court of Fives is a compelling story, one of the best and more creative YA novels I’ve read in the last several months. While the ending is unapologetically open-ended and leaves all kinds of unresolved issues for the sequels, it was so deftly written, with intriguing layers of complexity weaving about the main characters, that I can’t even resent the need to wait for next two books in this series to be published.

~Tadiana Jones

Published August 18, 2015. In this imaginative escape into enthralling new lands, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott’s first young adult novel weaves 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 away from her family she can be whoever she wants when she sneaks out to train for The Fives, an intricate, multilevel athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best contenders. Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an unlikely friendship between two Fives competitors–one of mixed race and the other a Patron boy–causes heads to turn. When Kal’s powerful, scheming uncle tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test her new friend’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a royal clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L’Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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6 comments

  1. I really want to read this! Another one for the list.

  2. Ooh this sounds awesome. Little Women meets American Ninja Warrior is also an ingenious sell. I’m so bored of every new piece of genre fiction being compared to Game of Thrones or Harry Potter

    • Exactly! It was that “elevator pitch” which made me hesitant to start the book, as much as I’m a fan of Elliott’s writing. (I’m really glad I read it, though, and glad that the GoT comparison was wrong.) “The next Harry Potter” or “[blank] meets Game of Thrones” is the easiest way to get me to avoid a book. Tell me what the book IS, don’t tell me what currently-popular thing it vaguely resembles!

      I really think you’d like this one. :)

  3. “‘Little Women meets American Ninja Warrior?’ Oh hell yes, I want this.”

    “No no self, hold up. Keep reading. Don’t get taken in by a clever pitch. You know better than that.”

    *Keeps reading*

    “Oh hell yes, I NEED this.”

    My reaction ^^

    I like the idea of a sports-like competitions like this, because unlike life-or-death battles, it’s easier to imagine the protagonist(s) losing once in a while. Though I suppose it depends on exactly how ruthless these competitions are!

  4. Ever since reading her Spiritwalker Trilogy, I have been super super impressed with how subtle and creative and detailed she is with world-building and translating that world into story. This book is definitely on my must-read list!

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