In Court of Fives, Survival Is a Game Everyone Must Play

elliottCourt of Fives marks the entry of prolific fantasy scribe Kate Elliott into the wide field of young adult genre writing. Although it’s her first YA work, the series-starter is her 22nd solo novel; she’s been honing her skills in various areas of adult science fiction and fantasy since the late 1980s, and knows her way around introducing people to a new world. Readers of any age used to her trademark world-building; her wonderful women and girls, written with the full range of their humanity; and her emphasis on the relationships between them will find all that and more in this story.

When I first ventured into Kate Elliott’s fantasy worlds through Cold Magic, the first in her Spiritwalker series, I wasn’t reading a great deal of epic fantasy, because true epic fantasy takes time. I’m a slow reader of the form, no matter how engaging I find it, or how familiar the tropes might be. But Kate Elliott’s novels, with robust world building, offer an immersive reading experience that is perfect for me, and one that is truly rewarding for readers willing to take their time. She is an interactive writer. She wants readers to ask questions, poke at the societies she builds, and to engage in a dialogue with her work. In Court of Fives, she uses all the tools that have made her so work so popular in the adult sphere to create another nuanced, complicated, and contradictory world.

Jessamy’s dream is to run The Fives, an athletic competition of five trials that requires strength, endurance, and logic. But she is trapped between the dream of participating in the trials and the reality of her father’s low societal status and her own mixed race; she is neither an upper class Patron, nor a Commoner. Although adversaries in The Fives run the gamut of tasks while masked and anonymous, that only lasts until they win, when they are unmasked to claim victory. Unable to participate openly, and to avoid embarrassing her family, Jessamy practices in secret—and she’s good, good enough to compete for real. When she sneaks into her very first Five with the help of one of her sisters, mask firmly on and knowing she can never truly win, it changes her fortune—and her family’s future—forever.

This is Kate Elliott trying something very new. By its nature, YA tends to be more tightly written, and therefore shorter, than adult epic fantasy, but Court of Fives lacks none of the details that makes her adult work so admired. From the detailed settings, to the nuanced social history, she introduces us to a world of ongoing war, intricate class restrictions, racial and gender inequality, and a hierarchical society that leaves many of its members at risk of being swept along by the whims of the privileged few. The story pulls no punches in either establishing the severe restrictions placed upon the men and women due to their place in society, or depicting the consequences of stepping out of line, whether socially or politically.

Elliott bears out the conflicts between Jessamy, her family, and the people she encounters, all wanting in their own way to be free from impositions placed on them by a cultural tradition that creates traps for those without the privileges and skill to escape them. The Fives seem like a simple, straightforward trial compared to the game of societal standing in which everyone is a player, but Jessamy quickly learns the tournament is yet another piece in a game being played by people much more powerful than her. In the end, Jessamy’s training and ability to excel in The Fives is the only thing standing between her, her own death, and the death of her mother and sisters.

The book reveals itself slowly, rewarding those with patience to ask questions of the world-building, character motivations, and history Jessamy is bound by. Elliott’s ability to create intricate societies with tangled social, political, and economic realities that generate obstacles for her characters is one of her great strengths, and this book highlights it wonderfully. This is a sharp, gorgeous, brutal story about familial love and the complex nature of trust, and an excellent beginning to a new series.

Court of Fives is available August 18.

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