Poisoned Blade: Will Efea rise?

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Poisoned Blade by Kate Elliott YA young adult fantasy book reviewsPoisoned Blade by Kate Elliott

Warning: may contain mild spoilers for the previous book, Court of Fives

In Poisoned Blade, the second novel in her COURT OF FIVES trilogy, Kate Elliott builds on the strengths of Court of Fives and expands upon it, weaving tangled webs of intrigue, deceit, and impressively multi-layered political schemes. Anyone who thinks Young Adult fiction can’t successfully handle themes like a culture’s endurance in defiance of colonialism, the myriad socio-economic factors leading toward revolution, or racial and/or gender inequality, needs to read these books: Elliott covers these issues and much more while crafting a compelling narrative, interesting and unique characters, and a living, breathing world.

Poisoned Blade (2016) opens mere hours after Court of Fives ends, thrusting victorious Adversary Jessamy Garon (previously Tonor) into the highest echelons of Saryenia’s social classes. Her triumph at the Royal Fives Court brings riches and fame, enough to give her a taste of the security that could be possible for her family if she continues to win, but comes at the cost of her dear Lord Kalliarkos’ freedom. His defeat ensures his enlistment in the faction of the royal army under her father’s command, currently at war with the three other kingdoms of Old Saro. That same night, as she lurks on the outskirts of a lavish celebration, Jes accidentally overhears a whispered and unseen conversation implying that sinister plans are afoot which threaten the current Saroese rulers; shortly afterward, she is made aware that the so-called “Commoners” of the city, the true people of Efea, grow restless under generations of oppression and are making their own plans, led by a charismatic poet named Ro-emnu.

Meanwhile, Lord Gargaron seeks to further his own ambition by promoting Jes’ talents in the Fives Court, and his insistence that she act as the mascot for his personal Fives training stable forces Jes to come into contact with members of the royal court, including Lady Menoë, who happens to be her father’s new wife as well as Kalliarkos’ older sister. Jes, a child of mixed Saroese and Efean heritage, looks too much like each of her parents to blend in with either group, but must decide who she is and where her loyalties lie as the stage is set for a battle that may tear her beloved city apart.

Elliott reveals the Efean countryside this time around, sending Jes on a whirlwind tour of the settlements and farmlands surrounding her home city. Her mother and most of her siblings are safely removed from Lord Gargaron’s machinations, but Bettany is still missing, and Jes is tasked with bringing her twin safely home. Under clever pretenses, Jes creates the opportunity for herself and some other Garon Stable adversaries to visit more provincial Fives Courts, where they soak in local gossip and news of the ongoing war. From fields with gently waving stalks of grain to blowing desert sands, Efea comes to life in precisely rendered detail, allowing the reader to be completely immersed in the land and the culture of its people, which flourish even as their symbols and beliefs are cannibalized and appropriated by conquering invaders.

Jes matures tremendously, forced to determine who she wants to be and what she wants to stand for while other characters try to force her into prescriptive molds. Her shift from thinking of her mother’s people as “Commoners” to “Efeans” is a powerful moment, as much as her gradual process of subverting conventions, both her own and of many of the people she encounters; nonetheless, it sometimes seems that there is always someone waiting to remind her that she will never be welcome in their particular social caste. Jes is nothing like perfect: as skilled as she is on the Fives Court, she’s often at a loss in social situations, and while she makes some brilliant strategic choices, the perceived motives behind her actions affect her allies and loved ones in profound and surprising ways. No matter what she decides and no matter where she lands, she risks hurting the people she loves, and being hurt by them in return.

Poisoned Blade covers more time than its predecessor, sometimes letting weeks pass between important events, but the breakneck pace never falters for an instant. A longer span lends credence to the build-up of tensions and hostilities, as well; Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor did it fall that quickly. Drips and drabs of exposition are included for readers who aren’t devouring these books back-to-back, but those brief passages never bog down the prose. The focus is fully on Jes as she attempts to navigate her way through a royal court more perilous than a pit of scorpions, the treachery and unreliability of the human heart, and the expectations of the Saroese and Efean people, both of which contain people who would gladly use her to further their own agendas without any regard for her wishes or well-being. It’s up to Jes to decide how much of a pawn she’s willing to be, and how far she’s willing to use others in the name of protecting herself and her family.

The second book of a trilogy is, too often, just a “bridge novel:” a placeholder between the first book and the third, in which characters meander about and very little actually happens other than establishing various circumstances for the novel to come. Poisoned Blade is far more than that, providing room for the characters and world to grow in impressive ways while teasing a grand and potentially heartbreaking finale. Highly recommended.

Publication date: August 16, 2016. In this thrilling sequel to World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott’s captivating young adult debut, a girl immersed in high-stakes competition holds the fate of a kingdom in her hands. Now a Challenger, Jessamy is moving up the ranks of the Fives–the complex athletic contest favored by the lowliest Commoners and the loftiest Patrons alike. Pitted against far more formidable adversaries, success is Jes’s only option, as her prize money is essential to keeping her hidden family alive. She leaps at the chance to tour the countryside and face more competitors, but then a fatal attack on her traveling party puts Jes at the center of the war that Lord Kalliarkos–the prince she still loves–is fighting against their country’s enemies. With a sinister overlord watching her every move and Kal’s life on the line, Jes must now become more than a Fives champion…. She must become a warrior.

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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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4 comments

  1. I’m definitely going to pick up this series to listen to with my daughter. Thanks, Jana!

  2. Great review, Jana! The book arrived yesterday – thank you! and your review has pushed it up higher on my very lengthy “need to read soon” list.

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