Court of Fives and the Importance of Making Race Explicit in YA Fantasy

At the We Need Diverse Books: In Our World and Beyond panel at BookCon 2015, Shadowshaper author Daniel José Older advocated for counter-narratives in sci-fi and fantasy that push back against the status quo. Authors can achieve this, he said, by considering “diverse rhythms, diverse narrative structures, diverse ways of being, diverse conflicts.”

When it comes to the creation of characters and cultures, homogeneity stands in the way of greater diversity, and vague descriptions surrounding characters of color feeds directly into that problematic homogeneity. Readers searching for their reflection in the books they consume bring their own assumptions and preferences to the character; and while vagueness regarding a character’s race can allow a wider range of readers to identify with a book’s protagonist, it can also weigh a character description in favor of white readers, sometimes leading to extreme cases of book covers being whitewashed.

That’s part of why Court of Fives, Kate Elliott’s first YA novel, is so refreshing. While its heroine, aspiring athlete Jessamy Tonor, is biracial, there is no ambiguity about her racial identification. Furthermore, the fact that her family is mixed-race is the crux of the novel’s dramatic conflict, making for a unique yet still universal story.

With Court of Fives being marketed asLittle Women meets Game of Thrones meets The Hunger Games,” one can’t help but compare Jes to Katniss Everdeen. This contrast is especially appropriate for discussing race, as Katniss is an example of a YA character whose ethnicity has been hotly debated: her physical description is just left-of-center enough to remain ambiguous, leading readers and Hollywood to automatically revert the character to a white girl.

Sharp-eyed readers of the first Hunger Games book found enough details in Katniss’ physical description to give them pause: olive skin; straight, black hair; and grey eyes. Yet, it leads to a polarizing interpretation—either this is a decidedly POC character, or it’s vague enough that it could go either way. What’s more, these opinions left almost no room for Katniss to be biracial. Even Collins shied away from the word, in a 2011 interview after the casting of Jennifer Lawrence raised issues:

[The characters] were not particularly intended to be biracial. It is a time period where hundreds of years have passed from now. There’s been a lot of ethnic mixing. But I think I describe them as having dark hair, grey eyes, and sort of olive skin.

But isn’t “ethnic mixing” exactly what leads to a multiracial population? In Efea, the setting for Court of Fives, “ethnic mixing” is still very much taboo: Generations before the start of the novel, the Patrons—the Egyptian-esque upper-class—invade the nation of Efea from Saro-Urok. With them they bring the hallmarks of their resource-rich (and therefore more technologically advanced) civilization, merging the two populations. In the minds of the Patrons, they are improving the lives of the black inhabitants of Efea—whom they dub as uncultured “Commoners”—by granting them a place in Efean society as servants and concubines. To blur these societal dividers is to invite criticism and mistrust from other Patrons.

The metaphor here is so overt that it’s not really a metaphor. The Patrons themselves are described as golden-skinned, and in Efea, privilege is granted or withheld based on skin color. The lighter-skinned Patrons are free people, working to improve their social standing through education and marriages, and are able to attend Fives games, the theater, and other forms of entertainment. By contrast, the Commoners can rarely aspire to a position higher than a household servant. They can clean up after a Patron as a servant, and they can entertain a patron as an artisan or concubine, but they can never be equal. There are more insidious demonstrations of the imbalance between the Patrons and Commoners, as well. This is how a Commoner servant is described in the very first chapter: “My father gave him the name Monkey because Father names all our Efean servants after plants or animals. But when Father is not home Mother calls him by his Efean name, Montu‐en.” Oof. Not to mention, the Commoners live in specific neighborhoods, which are patrolled by terrifying spider-robots.

This is precisely the kind of specificity so many books lack. In 1999, queer and cultural theorist José Muñoz introduced the practice of disidentification, in which queer people and POC take advantage of that same vagueness to “recycle and recode” images to better match their experiences. In a 2013 blog post on Black Girl Dangerous, writer Alexandrina Agloro referenced disidentification as a way to read the Catching Fire movie, interpreting both heroic Cinna and reviled Snow as queer characters.

Agloro also referenced the theory (which has recently grown in popularity) that Harry Potter heroine Hermione Granger is a woman of color. The disidentification theory plays on two aspects in Rowling’s books: first, that Hermoine is never explicitly described as white—and is often described as having bushy hair as her primary trait—while the other characters receive more heavily detailed descriptions; second, that the slur “Mudblood” is a metaphor that refers to more than the purity of her magical ancestry. BuzzFeed has rounded up countless pieces of fan art presenting Hermione as not-white, showing that a sizable contingent of readers have no trouble imagining her as such. And while Hermione can be imagined as a woman of color through disidentification, the vagueness of her physical description has resulted in her being considered white by the majority of readers and moviegoers.

When it comes to Jessamy, there’s no need for disidentification or racebending, because her identity is clearly articulated: She and her sisters are biracial, the children of an upper-class Patron father and a Commoner mother, and their family’s existence is so unique that it is considered illegal and illegitimate, even though Jes’s mom and dad have loved no one else for decades.

Her father—a baker’s son-turned-rising-star soldier—impresses upon his daughters how vital it is that they behave as proper Patron women, but fortunately/unfortunately for Jessamy, she more resembles her mother, making her unable to pass as purely Patron in Efean society. As far as the rest of Efea is concerned, Jes isn’t fooling anyone.

While Jes’s four sisters consider how their half-Patron status could help them move up in society—through lucrative marriages, or by applying to become Archivists—Jes can only focus on what her heritage holds her back from: running the Fives. The athletic competition, which tests its challengers with five different but equally taxing obstacle courses, is open to Commoners and Patrons alike; but considering her already tenuous social status, Jes can’t risk the rumors and derisive whispers that such participation would inspire. This is where Court of Fives breaks away from any comparisons with The Hunger Games: where Katniss was trying to avoid the Games, Jessamy is eager to run the Fives.

Further, when Jes finally gets her chance to participate in the Fives, she finds that she now has the luxury of doing what she loves all day and even being congratulated for it. For the first time, she has freedom to roam the city whenever she wants, and some meager earnings to contribute to her family—a sign of social status automatically granted to the golden-skinned Patrons and one which they constantly take for granted.

Author Kate Elliott tightens the scope from macro to micro from this point onward, putting Jes through a horrible discovery that highlights the differences between her life in the Fives and her family’s situation, as well as the larger racial politics that move them all. I won’t say too much in order to avoid spoilers, but suffice it to say, Jes’ mother and sisters are punished for being (respectively) Commoner and mixed-race. The setting for the latter half of the story draws from Efean history before the Saro-Urok invasion, another point tied in to Jes’ heritage.

Malinda Lo, whose commentary on and signal-boosting of issues involving race in literature are invaluable, provides an interesting perspective on biracial characters in fantasy: when writing a fantasy novel set in a world that doesn’t have the same countries or ethnicities as Earth, Lo posits that it would be bizarre to call a character “biracial” when those races don’t actually exist within the story’s framework. (Perhaps this is what Suzanne Collins was articulating?) However, when Lo writes her characters, she often does consider them biracial—influenced in part, she says, by her own mixed-race heritage. For her, that’s the default for many (though not all) of her characters’ physical appearances without having to explicitly describe them as biracial. Check out Ash, her retelling of Cinderella, to see how well staying vague in regards to a character’s race can be executed.

A message board thread from 2012 brings up some interesting arguments while tackling the question of whether writing biracial characters is a cop-out. Commenters asserted that the real cop-out is to drop in a non-white character without delving into racial tensions; when race has no impact on the story, it’s tokenism. Clearly this is not the case in a work like Court of Fives—without Jes and her family being considered an aberration in Efean society, there would be no reason to split them up in the first place: the story is bound up in issues of race and identity at every level.

Jes’ biracial heritage explicitly dictates the direction of her plot; it also intensely focuses her character arc in a very personal way. While not every reader will be able to relate to the specific punishment Jes’ family receives for the color of their skin, the specificity of the prejudice they face results in a much stronger depiction of societal injustice than the less substantial concept of, say, rising up against a dystopian power. Because really, which of these two conflicts is the average person more likely to have to endure?

Natalie Zutter cannot believe she now has to wait a year for the next book in the Fives series. You can read more of her work on Twitter and elsewhere.


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