Court of Fives by Kate Elliott. ★★★
Court of Fives is accomplished fantasy author Kate Elliott’s dive into YA fiction. Unfortunately, I found it lacking in its ability to carry out its premise effectively.
Jessamy is the daughter of a Patron man and a Commoner woman. Her parents are not married, as marriage is forbidden among the two groups, but they have lived together peacefully for twenty years. Then disaster strikes as a powerful Patron noble tears her family apart. Jes must do what she can to protect her mother and sisters.
At the beginning of the book, Jes wants nothing more than to compete in the Court of Fives, an illustrious athletic competition beloved by the whole city. However, her father does not believe it is appropriate for a woman of her position, so Jes sneaks out to train and compete. When the powerful Patron noble “makes” her father leave her mother and sisters to marry his niece…. Jes is suddenly given everything she’s wanted? She gets a position in a training facility for the game and it looks like her method of helping her mother and sisters is going to consist of running in the games in hopes of earning prize money.
Jes is so self centered in the beginning of the book. Why is she risking her family’s reputation and precarious position (given the whole mixed race thing) for a talked up obstacle course? And why does the disaster that hurts everyone else give her exactly what she wanted in the first place? It would be one thing if she made a mistake and the danger that came to her family is a direct result of her actions. That would be tremendous potential for character growth and her overall arc. But her original actions and the events that befall her mother and sisters are only loosely connected.
Back to what happens to her mother and sisters. Why? Seriously, what is the villain’s motivation? It’s explained in the book, but the explanations are flimsy at best. And if he wants to get rid of Jes’s family, why not just kill them? Why all the elaborate schemes? Honestly, the plotting in this book is so shaky and loose.
For something important enough to name the book after it, the Court of Fives sure wasn’t very interesting. As I mentioned before, it’s essentially an obstacle course. Given that this is a low technology fantasy world, I’ve got no idea how the spectators can even see what’s going on, especially for the maze section. And how to they make the elaborate shifting rings? But the biggest failing here is that it is simply not very interesting to read about someone running through an obstacle course. I feel like it was included (or at least marketed upon) because someone wanted to push a Hunger Games comparison. The first blurb on the back of my book even compares Jes to Katniss.
Speaking of characterization, I have no feel for any of the characters. Jes herself is a mess, and I couldn’t get a good feeling of who she was and what was driving her (besides the oft repeated fact that she liked the Court of Fives). Most of her three sisters seemed to have one personality trait a piece. That one’s defiant. This one’s scholarly. The youngest sister showed the most promise in this regard, especially as she comes off as the flirty bubblehead stereotype but then you find she had a girlfriend. There’s some complexities that could be explored there.
Actually, there’s a lot of elements in Court of Fives that could stand to be explored more. There’s Jes’s relationships with her parents for one, which showed some promise. There’s also the entire world building, which really showed potential even if it ultimately was forgettable. Elliott did a good job about including little details and such and having the two differing social groups. The main stumbling block is that there’s no sense of place. The world doesn’t “breath” or come alive as you read it the way I think good world building should. Possibly the problem here was the simplistic writing style. It reminds me more of something written at the MG level than something at YA. Was Elliott purposefully toning down her writing because this was YA? I sure hope not.
There’s a romance sub-plot, but it actually doesn’t get that much focus. I couldn’t care less about what was there however. The love interest is a Patron boy who’s nice enough if fairly oblivious to the social problems with the race/class system. He also wants to forgo all responsibilities to run in the Fives even though he’s a prince. As I said, he’s oblivious.
Possibly the most frustrating thing about Court of Fives is that it has all these good points, even if they weren’t developed enough. I really appreciate a fantasy novel that tries to focus on family and the relationships between sisters. There are also things that could be said about Jes’s position as a mixed race girl in an extremely stratified culture (it reminded me of India under British rule, but I’ve seen other reviewers compare it to Egypt under Roman rule).
I am unlikely to recommend Court of Fives, although it is possible that the sequel could be an improvement. I think I will try some of Elliott’s other works instead.