Series: Court of Fives #1
on August 18th, 2014
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On the Fives court, everyone is equal.
And everyone is dangerous.
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 whomever 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 competitors.
Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an improbable friendship between the 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.
In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, 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.
I feel a little bad for this book. I didn’t expect much when I picked Court of Fives up, but I ended up loving it. It’s certainly not perfect but it just had that something that got my heart pounding. I was ready and raring to write a gushing review full of ALL THE CAPS and then…Brexit happened.
I have been plunged into a foul mood, but I shall try and muster up the buzz that this book deserves.
Funnily enough, I did not feel the buzz straight away. In fact, if you had asked me for my opinion after the first few chapters I would have told you that it was eye roll inducing and that the heroine, Jessamy, was the worst. The reason? The initial set up falls flat, and this is one of those flaws that runs throughout the book. So, if you can’t let it go, you’re in trouble.
Essentially, our Jessamy – or Jes for short – wants to run the Court of Fives. The Court of Fives takes place in what is essentially the Colisseum (the setting here is very much Ancient Rome/Greece) and is a series of physical tasks, sort of like an early Olympic Games. The problem is that Patron girls (the upper classes/nobility) aren’t allowed to run, because it would be totes unseemly. And this is where the complicated world politics comes in. Jes is half Patron, half Efean (the natives of this conquered land). Her father is a Patron General and while he has, just about, managed to keep his family together despite the prejudices of his peers, they have to be EXTRA careful to stick to the rules and keep up appearances. The snooty and very racist Patron class is literally WAITING for them to slip up. It’s tense, and gross in a pretty well written way.
Jes has been planning for AGES to take part in the games. Her sisters are all in on it, some more supportive than others. She’s been sneaking out of the house to train and then – just when she’s about to accomplish her dream – her father comes home from battle. Not only that, but they have all been invited to watch the games from their lord’s box. A huge honour, and challenge – as their ‘mongrel’ family will be displayed to all.
Jes is in despair, and it was this initial set up that had me despairing.
I don’t think the book EVER really gives a good enough reason for Jes to want SO BADLY to compete. I can buy her wanting to do it when she thinks she can get away with it totally under the radar, but when the narrative is continuously driving home the idea that IF SHE GETS CAUGHT HER WHOLE FAMILY IS RUINED it becomes a singularly selfish gesture. And for your main character to choose to do something so selfish there MUST be a good reason.
But there really isn’t. Jes doesn’t want to do it for fame (see, running anonymously), nor for fortune. It’s simply a case of her family’s security vs. her personal dream. So I completely understand why this premise might turn people off Jes, and the book. Why doesn’t it ruin the book for me? Well, I don’t want to spoil things, but ultimately her decision to run or not run isn’t truly the reason that everything goes to shit. It plays a part, but there are larger things at play that stop the blame being laid entirely at Jes’ feet. PLUS her ability in the games will, I assume, ultimately equal salvation. So, it’s frustrating but the book didn’t go down the blindingly obvious route I initially presumed it would.
So what hooked me, despite the failing set up?
The world building is solid. It doesn’t really feel like anything groundbreaking. As I’ve mentioned, the setting is very much akin to a conquered land of the Roman Empire. We’re in a city whose culture has seemingly been buried by its conquerors, yet there’s resistance there too. There’s a shit ton of racism flying around and our heroine, and her sisters, are bi-racial. It’s all deep and well developed, so even when it feels like familiar ground, it’s compelling familiar ground.
The style of writing felt odd at first, and it took me a while to get used to it. It tends to move very quickly, so that even the big emotional moments feel somewhat detached. At times this frustrated me because I wanted MORE. But I got used to it and found it very readable once I had.
The greatest strength of this book was the characters. There is a huge blend of personalities, both Patron and Efean – which meant we got perspectives from both sides. We get to see the smarmy racists, the Patrons that just roll with the punches, the Patrons that might make a stand for good, and also some rebellious Efeans that will surely return in future books. The characters were also incredibly deep. A good example is Jes’ mother. At the start I feared she was a doormat, but she proves herself to be pretty damn badass. Jes’ sisters are also pretty rad, or at least…two of them are. We don’t see enough of Bettany for me to make a judgement, but I’m looking forward to more.
Maraya – another sister – dreams of being an Archivist, but her club foot means she is shunned from society. As somebody that is always looking for representation for those of us that aren’t able bodied, this was exciting to me. I also really enjoyed that while Maraya is a background character, she gets her own little romance. Club foot or not, girl is desirable as fuck.
And then we have Amaya, or Amiable as Jes calls her – the final sister. Amaya was a DELIGHT and such a pleasant surprise. My snap judgement of her at the start of the book was that she was going to be the bitchy sister that ended up ruining things for Jes. I won’t say exactly what happens, but Amaya is awesome. She can be annoying, but the bonds of sisterhood are strong. And she also gets a sweet romance that was a twist I sort of saw coming, but didn’t dare to truly believe until it was thrust in my face.
Let’s get to the kicker. The biggest selling point for me was…not the ship.
In fact, our romantic lead – Kalliarkos – was pretty bland. He was okay. The ship was all right, I guess. They had some pretty cute moments, and I also enjoyed Jes manipulating the shizz nizz out of him when she needed too. But that’s it. Happily, I personally think that this book is setting this pair up to NOT be the endgame ship, and the ending of the book has me very excited for what’s to come. One of the best aspects of their relationship was the culture clash between them. That is clearly going to develop further going forwards. So my lack of investment here does not concern me.
No, the real highlight of this book was the relationship between Jes and her father. Now, if any of you saw me flailing over The Winner’s Curse series you might have noticed that it wasn’t the romance that truly gripped my heart in that series either, but the relationship between Kestrel and her father. It’s a similar sort of dynamic here (although PERHAPS LESS SOUL DESTROYING #neverforgetkestrelyouhavebrokenmyheart). Jes’ father is distant, cold, a war general. Jes looks up to him, but is also wary of him and unsure of the truth of his feelings. At times, Jes feels utterly betrayed by him. The best scenes in this book for me were the scenes between Jes and her father. They were the ones that really pulled on my heart and kept me gripped. And, through them, I came to care deeply for all of Jes’ family. My investment in this series is entirely wrapped around Jes and her family getting to live happily ever after.
I suspect that this is NOT going to happen.
Not everybody will love Court of Fives. The initial premise is foggy at best, and the writing style won’t be to everyone’s taste. But there’s an abundance of goodness here. Awesome ladies all over the place, a strong representation of racial discord (I think?), LGBT+ rep dashed in there, and some disabled representation too. The final third also hints at greater fantasy elements to come in to play, and I am ALL FOR IT. The bad guy is a bit two dimensional, but he’s dastardly and so I want to punch his face. Hopefully Jes, and then the rest of her family, will get to do so for me.
GIMME THE SEQUEL NOW.