Series: Court of Fives # 1
Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers on August 18, 2015
In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott begins a new trilogy with her debut young adult novel, weaving an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.
Jessamy's life is a balance between acting like an upper class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But at night she can be whomever she wants when she sneaks out to train for The Fives, an intricate, multi-level athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom's best competitors. Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an unlikely friendship between a girl of mixed race and a Patron boy causes heads to turn. When a scheming lord tears Jes's family apart, she'll have to test Kal's loyalty and risk the vengeance of a powerful clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.
I have to start this review by talking about the world-building in Court of Fives. It was perfection. I totally bought into this world, and I felt fully immersed in it. There were no “Huh? What? Why? That makes no sense” moments. The basis for and the rules of society were established early on, and it was accomplished without an info dump. This is a rigid, two class, patriarchal society – the Patrons and the Commoners. Jes comes from a highly unusual family. Her father is a Patron, and her mother is a Commoner. The only acceptable interactions between Patron men and Commoner women are when the men treat the women as temporary concubines. Marriage between the two classes is impossible. To actually raise a family and to be a married couple in everything but name, as Jes’s parents have done, is very unusual. Because Jes’s father is a very successful and valued military leader, his odd family is tolerated by his fellow Patrons. Barely.
Jes suffocates under the rules of her society. She rebels by anonymously participating in The Fives, a kind of intense obstacle course. Athletic prowess is celebrated, and champions of The Fives are highly respected. But not in Jes’s house. If her father was to find out that his daughter was a participant, he would be scandalized, and his already tenuous grasp on his social position would be even more challenged. Of course, this is exactly what happens, and Jes’s exposure sets into motion a series of events that tears her family apart. Jes is given the opportunity to openly participate in The Fives, even though she is now essentially the prisoner of the most despicable character in this story. Oddly, even though Jes is now a prisoner, and even though she is threatened with death if she is not successful in The Fives, she has more freedoms than she did with her family. She also has more motivation than ever to be a champion of The Fives, because she has a plan to get her family back together.
The first time I read a scene where Jess goes through the obstacles in The Fives, I was intrigued. By the tenth time, I was getting a little bored. Whether it’s because it wasn’t written clearly enough, or, more likely, because I zoned out a bit during these scenes, it wasn’t always easy for me to picture exactly what Jes was doing on the course. How did she swing on those rings? How did she land on the planks? It’s not integral to the story to be able to fully visualize these scenes, but because so much time was devoted to them, I felt like I was missing out.
One of the things I loved about Court of Fives is that it was a refreshing change of pace to read a story in which the MC has a fairly wide circle of allies. I’m more accustomed to an MC having one or perhaps two true friends, at least one of whom betrays the MC at the end. But even though Jes has a good deal of support, their world is dangerous, and there are limits to what her friends are able and willing to do for her. One of these allies is Kal, a Patron and a Lord, and a fellow participant in The Fives. And yes, he is Jes’s love interest. Their romance is sweet and slow-burning, and I was very happy that it was not the focal point of Jes’s life. It’s impossible to dislike Kal and not to sympathize with him, because even though he has enormous privilege, he still encounters problems very similar to Jes’s. He’s just as constrained by the strict class system and by the expectations of his family.
There are so many complex characters in this story, but the most interesting is probably Jes’s father. I felt the same sense of conflict about him as Jes did. I couldn’t decide whether to love him or hate him. I admired him for raising a family with the woman he loves, even though everything he learned in this society told him it was wrong. But when it really mattered, and his devotion to his family seemed to disappear, I hated him, even though I could kind of understand his reasons.
Of course, at the center of all this is Jes. She is a feminist in a world where feminism doesn’t even exist. She continually challenges the barriers of acceptable behavior for young women and for the lower class. In short she’s fantastic, and she is reason enough to pick up this book.
Random aside: I loved a scene that depicted bartering in a market with Jes’s sister and a shop owner. The bartering is done via effusive, yet sly, compliments by both parties. This scene drew a crowd that appreciated the skill both buyer and seller demonstrated.
Note: This review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher.