BRIEF SYNOPSIS:A secret aspirant to excel in a survival maze game, young Jessamy finds her true calling in working against the injustice and royal machinations that threaten her family’s lives.
PROS: Appealing, identifiable and strongly written protagonist, especially given first person voice; well developed themes and ideas of class, gender, and society that inform and influence the strong action.
CONS: The YA length leaves out some of the vivid detail and deep worldbuilding that are hallmarks of this author.
BOTTOM LINE: The most compact one-volume way to sample one of the best secondary fantasy put to paper, and an excellent suggestion for YA readers interested in secondary fantasy.
The daughter of a precarious and disapproved union between an upper class military leader and a commoner mother finds solace, personal freedom, and a possible route to justice, in an athletic competition in Court of Fives, the first turn into YA by epic fantasy author Kate Elliott.
Jessamy is one of the daughters of Captain Esladas. Pledged to the High clan Tonor, Esladas has found fame and fortune in Efea, far away from his homeland. He also fell in love with a local girl, a commoner like himself. As he rose in rank and status, he has scandalously remained faithful to the woman he cannot marry and will not abandon, daughters and all. Caught between the worlds of Patrons and commoners, Jessamy chafes at the clash of social roles and expectations. Her joy and desire is to run the Fives, a multi-level complex athletic competition. That she does so masked, and trains when her father is away on campaign should come as no surprise. Events soon come to a head as a change in Esladas’ fortune overwhelms the fragile world Jessamy inhabits, and her skills are called to greater purpose–for the good of her mother and sisters.
Jessamy is the heart and soul of the book, and Elliott has taken great pains to show a multi-sided and relatable young heroine. Her hopes, fears, dreams, strengths and weaknesses are drawn from an intimate and fluent first person perspective, a clear evolution and development of the voice she used to depict Catherine in the Cold Magic/Spiritwalker series. Court of Fives is a much much more compact volume in terms of observed setting and scope, characters, and a fast-paced structure that suits the form very well. We don’t get into anyone else’s head in the novel, so everyone and everything is filtered through Jes’ viewpoint. Elliott does an excellent job of juxtaposing Jes’ preconceptions and thoughts on characters with their observed actions, and providing a multidimensional point of view on her sisters, her mother, her father, and others. Notably among these is Kalliarkos, a patron boy with all the advantages of life, and we get the sense that even in his position and rank, he, like Jes, chafes at the duty he is called to, and dreams of what he might do if given the chance to break out of his societal mold. Their interactions as they get to know each other, and compete with one another, are a highlight of the book.
The world and culture itself is another achievement in Elliott’s oeuvre. The world is reminiscent ofthe broad outlines of Ptolemaic-Era Egypt, with an outsider expatriate ruling class over a common, local population. Add in class struggles, divisions, culture clashes, and all the richness of a society divided,reflecting and refracting itself over and over again. Saryenia, the city that Jessamy and the other characters make their home, is reminiscent of Alexandria, with its port-town culture mixing, ancient tombs and mausoleums, and opulent wealth thrust against grinding poverty. Rather than simply copying the layout of that fabled city, however, the roadside geology of Elliott’s city is an invention of its own, a city sprawling across two conical hills which are clearly extinct volcanoes, and festooned with a pair of harbors in Saryenia that are perfect circles (and thus whose origin is beautifully clear to the alert reader)
The Fives game itself is a wonderful bit of invention on the author’s part. An obstacle/maze/challenge of dexterity, thinking, and cunning as well as brute strength, the competition and design of it is well suited to having contestants of both genders compete on a relatively even footing. We get a couple of set-piece run throughs, and a lot of Jessamy’s thoughts on how the courses work and how she faces each of the five pieces of it. These are wonderfully done, showing a real consideration for athletic competitions and what it takes to excel in them.
We don’t get to see quite as much of that world, or some of the revealed secrets, in this volume as we might were this one of the author’s more standard-length Epic Fantasy tomes. I was left with a lot of questions about how some things work and the layout of certain aspects of society,magic and culture that simply would have made a tight volume aimed at a YA audience be too unwieldy. The fact that this is the first in a series gives me hope that many of my questions about the world Elliott has created will be answered. That is above and beyond the strong desire I have to see the continuation of Jessamy’s story. While she achieves a significant victory at the end of this novel, Jes’ story has only begun, and Elliott has planted some very intriguing seeds for what is to come. I aim to finish the trilogy to see if the brass ring at the end of the course is really, as it is with so much of the author’s work, gold.