Jessamy, the protagonist of Kate Elliott’s first young adult novel Court of Fives, is very much in the middle of everything. She and her twin have both an older sister and a younger sister, so they share the traditional middle child role. Jes is a child of two different races and classes: Her mother, Kiya, is a Commoner, while her father, Esladas, is a Patron who has elevated himself above his low-born station to a military Captain. Jes is caught between her desire to compete in the Court of Fives—an intricate, labyrinthine, obstacle race (think something like the course on American Ninja Warrior)—and what society dictates the daughter of a Patron should do, torn between her duty and desire to save her family once her father’s sponsor Lord Ottonor dies.
What she desires above everything is competing and winning in the Court of Fives. The problem is that she cannot win, not without bringing shame on her father (a decorated Military man) and her family. So she competes under a mask and intentionally loses during her first run through the Court, allowing a young man named Kalliarkos to win the day.
Not long after, Ottonor dies and a scheming lord named Gargaron (who happens to be Kalliarkos’ uncle) assumes Ottonor’s debts (which would otherwise be passed onto Jessamy’s family), bringing Esladas into his “employ” and forcing a separation of Jessamy’s family. Her father is forced to lead an army and fight for his new bannerman, Gargaron, Jes’ sisters and pregnant mother are shunted to a fate most dire, and Jes herself is forced to train Gargaron’s nephew Kal to succeed in the Court of Fives. When the family is torn apart, it’s up to Jes to fix things…or at least make them better. Class/societal structure is a major factor in this novel—perhaps the defining factor driving all of the dramatic tension. It weighs upon Jessamy’s every move and even prevents her father and mother from actually marrying, for a Patron cannot marry a Commoner below their station. As her father’s new sponsor points out, many men in Esladas’ situation would simply have married an equal in the social structure and kept Jessamy’s mother as a concubine. Esladas’ commitment to the mother of his children has prevented him from ascending even higher in society, which is why it comes as such a shock to Jes and the girls that her father does, eventually, cast them all aside to join Gargaron.
Elliott immediately thrusts the reader into Jes’ head and heart, and the result is a wonderful immersion in both familial love and the tensions at work within these relationships. Jes and her sisters adore their mother, and while they respect their father, they don’t know him nearly as well because he is often away, off leading armies. What makes this such an outstanding novel is Elliott’s experienced hand at revelation and building compelling characters. I was immediately drawn to Jes as a character, caught up in her plight and the story she had to tell. Much of the YA I’ve read is told from the first-person POV, and in adopting that narrative style, Elliott has placed a great deal of weight on Jessamy’s shoulders—we experience the entire story through her consciousness, and in this case, it works extremely well.
Kate Elliott has a long, acclaimed career in speculative fiction—having been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and Nebula Award for her fiction. In other words, the woman knows how to write and tell a damned fine story, and those skills translate seamlessly into this YA tale. Court of Fives is one of those deceptively simple novels in which there’s a lot to be gleaned from the page if you know to look for it, and even more happening beyond the immediate action, as little details come together to build a very sound structure of a novel. What also works so well is the parallel of the Court of Fives obstacle race and the experiential hurdles over which Jessamy must jump in order to help her family. Jessamy is an extremely well-rounded character who, for all of her love for her family and inner strength, is flawed, occasionally allowing her pride to get the best of her.
Court of Fives is a novel with very wide appeal, which benefits from a young, headstrong, and charismatic protagonist, a mythically-inspired setting that provides a fantastical spin on historical/classical antiquity (think ancient Egypt, Macedonia, and Rome), a strong base of well-rounded supporting characters, and the magnetic force of its dramatic tension, which kept this reader glued to the pages.
This book will appeal to readers and fans of The Hunger Games series, with its great female protagonist and sense physical competition. I also think readers whose favorite character in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire is Arya Stark will find a lot to like in Jes as a protagonist. Regardless of how you cut it, Court of Fives is a superb novel—Elliott ends the book with a bang, and I eagerly await the sequel.
Rob Bedford lives in NJ with his wife and dog. He reviews books and moderates forums at SFFWorld, has a blog about stuff, and writes for SF Signal as well as here at Tor.com. If you want to read random thoughts about books, TV, his dog, and beer you can follow him on Twitter: @RobHBedford.