YA Weekend: Court of Fives by Kate Elliott
A review copy was provided by the author/publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Genre: Young Adult, Fantasy
Series: Book 1 of Court of Fives
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (8/18/15)
Mogsy’s Rating: 2 of 5 stars
While it’s true that I have not read many books by Kate Elliott, I still feel pretty confident when I say this is not her best. I’m disappointed because I badly, desperately wanted to like this one, but ultimately it just wasn’t for me.
First, a quick summary of the premise to set the stage for my points below. Our protagonist is a girl named Jessamy. She and her three sisters are raised in a household by their Patron father, a low-born baker’s son who nevertheless rose to fame and prestige in the military because of his talents in command, and their Commoner mother, a concubine because it is forbidden for a man of Saroese ancestry to marry a native woman of Efea. Jes’ secret dream is to train for the Fives, an athletic competition that offers a chance for glory, but due to her father’s strict rules, the only way she can compete is in secret. One day during a public event, Jes meets Kalliarkos, a young Patron prince. From a shared love of the Fives, they strike up an unlikely friendship. But when disaster strikes and a ruthless lord threatens to tear Jessamy’s family apart, Kal’s loyalty to her will be put to the test.
World-Building: Sadly, it was almost non-existent. Save for random facts about the setting, there was little to bring it all together. This is Kate Elliott’s first Young Adult novel and I don’t know if it’s because she felt the need to water down the particulars, but I’ve always been a big believer that just because it’s YA doesn’t mean you have to skimp on the details; readers are patient and if you want to take some time establishing a bit of background information, I doubt anyone’s going to throw the book down in a fit of rage just because of a little break in the action.
Story: Way too many holes for my tastes. There were many things that didn’t sit right with me. My biggest problem was the villain’s main motivation to separate Jessamy’s father from his family. Even if I buy the explanation, I don’t understand why he would go to all the trouble with his layer upon layer of schemes. Really, it’d make a lot more sense for him to simply kill everyone and be done with it, especially since we’ve already established that he’s the kind of man who would do something like that and not lose a wink of sleep. As far as I could tell, the only reason he did what he did was so there would be a story.
Main Character: Jessamy is one of the most confusing YA heroines I’ve ever met. One moment she’s convinced me that she desperately wants to take some action, or feels strongly about something. And just as suddenly she’ll do a complete one-eighty and say the opposite. Her desire to run the Fives is a prime example. We spend the first few chapters reading about how badly she wants to take part in the coming games, how she’d do anything to sneak out and compete. But of course when the moment finally comes, she gets cold feet. No, Jes, that’s not what I want to hear at all. You want me convinced of your love for the game? Then OWN IT. No flip-flopping. But more flip-flopping is exactly what she does, this time on the matter of her father. Does she hate him for being an ambitious cad who threw away his family to get ahead in life, or does she love him for being forced against his will to make a bad decision that will nonetheless save all their lives? Jes seems to change her mind on this every other chapter.
Romance: Besides having no chemistry, I’m not sure Jes and Kal’s “romance” is even altogether healthy. He’s got a complex where he’s desperate for the approval of those around him, bending over backwards for people so that they would like him, praise him, accept him. She knows this, and takes advantage of it every chance she gets, goading him into breaking the rules and taking risks for her by sneering at his skills and challenging his manhood. There was also no build up to their relationship; it’s just something that randomly happens.
The Fives: This game is bizarre and confusing, a glorified obstacle course where each adversary must progress through a set of four challenges before tackling the final puzzle, a moving contraption called Rings which the player must scale successfully to claim the victory flag and declare triumph. There’s no need for a lot of strategizing or direct contact between players, so each adversary works independently for the most part, which doesn’t make for much entertainment or suspense. I give the game credit for being a cool idea, but it doesn’t feel complete or fully realized.
It’s a shame, because this novel isn’t without its strengths and I can actually name a few areas where the story really shines. However, most of the positives are overshadowed by the negatives. There are several missed opportunities to further explore the implications of Jessamy being a woman of mixed-race straddling two worlds, raised in the tradition of one culture while physically resembling the people of the other. There’s also the difference in women’s status in the two societies, which gets mentioned a lot by characters in the story, but there’s not much more beyond that. These are important issues that could have made the world-building feel more vivid and robust, but regrettably, we are only given very surface-level details.
I wish I could have given Kate Elliott’s Young Adult debut a more glowing review, but the truth is Court of Fives ended up falling short of my expectations. Understandably, the rivers of YA are difficult to navigate, and hopefully the next book will stand on sturdier ground. Fortunately though, Elliott has written plenty of great books in her distinguished career, and if you want to check out her work I would recommend Cold Magic, the first book of her Spiritwalker trilogy, which also stars a strong young woman but it’s a much richer, more powerful coming-of-age tale than this one.