I’m a late starter when it comes to Kate Elliott’s writing. She’s a fairly prolific author, but I somehow never got around to reading her works when I was in my teenage read-all-the-fantasy stage. I finally read JARAN back in 2013 (can’t remember why now, though very likely it was this conversation between Kerry and Estara), and promptly fell for Tess’s story – old-school SF/F it may have been, but the fascinating matriachal society of Rhui combined with the romance of Tess/Ilya’s relationship made JARAN one of my favourite reads of 2013. I then made my way through the rest of the Jaran books, her Highroad trilogy, and was starting on her Spiritwalker books… and then I must have gotten distracted because COLD MAGIC is still mostly unread on my Kindle (not for long, though – more on this in a bit).
So, a long-winded way of saying although I’m relatively new to Kate Elliott’s works, I’m doing my best to make up for it! Not easy when she’s continuing to release more books – COURT OF FIVES, her debut YA fantasy, came out a couple of months ago, and she has another new book coming out in November.
I won COURT OF FIVES in a author giveaway a month or so ago (kind of still pinching myself, because I never win anything and then to win a book which was not out in the UK at that point of time – yeah, happy dance).
On the Fives court, everyone is equal.
And everyone is dangerous.
Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper-class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But away from her family, she can be whomever she wants when she sneaks out to train for the Fives, an intricate, multilevel athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors.
Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an improbable friendship between the two Fives competitors—one of mixed race and the other a Patron boy—causes heads to turn. When Kal’s powerful, scheming uncle tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test her new friend’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a royal clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.
In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott’s first young adult novel weaves an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.
IIRC, COURT OF FIVES was marketed as “Little Women meets Game of Thrones” – while this probably was a great PR tagline, I have to say that any comparison is superficial at best (the Little Women comparison probably being strongest in the opening scene). If anything, it was Sharon Shinn that sprung to my mind as I was reading COURT OF FIVES. It took me a while to pin down why, but I think it’s partly to do with the thoughtful way that race is brought to the table (as in Shinn’s HEART OF GOLD specifically, with similar themes in some of her YAs as well). Another loose connection is the Fives game, which somehow was reminiscent of Shinn’s worldbuilding in the Elemental Blessings series. They’re not the same at all, mind (some people may say not at all!), but the skill challenges and obstacles in the Fives courts reminded me of the way Shinn constructed her world around the elemental blessings.
Like most of her other books, Elliott drops the reader into this new world with little information, and I had to do some work to figure out how the pieces all fit together, and especially just how much Jes and her interracial family stand out in the very traditional Patreon society. It was a slightly slow start, but when Jes stops reacting and starts doing, when she gains agency, and when the action ramps up – that’s when I became totally absorbed in her world.
The story was familiar, yet different enough for me to feel unsure of where Jes would end up. Elliott is one of those writers who adds depth to tropes that could easily feel a bit too worn out in other hands. And the book did finish with a bang – I liked that there was no easy solution, because moral dilemmas aren’t usually clear-cut, and family ties and loyalties can be complicated. I probably could have done without the hints of romance… though I’m thinking that this may not necessarily go where it seems to be going in future books.
Because yes, I’m totally up for the next book.
Also – slight digression, but Kate Elliott has referenced how writing a YA was different to writing an “adult” fantasy. Having now restarted the aforementioned COLD MAGIC, which has a protagonist in her early 20s (I think!) but was not written as YA, I can tell there’s a difference between COLD MAGIC and COURT OF FIVES. Not one that I can pinpoint easily – I hesitate to say simplified because that’s not the right word and implies YA needs to be dumbed-down, but they’re certainly different.
I ended up doing a quick search to see if Elliott had talked about this in more depth and came up trumps – she did an interview @ The Book Wars where she talks about the very thing: more immediate pacing and more focused world-building appear to be the elements she focused on for YA (I paraphrase, probably not very well). It makes sense, and I certainly found her Spiritwalker trilogy harder to get into at the beginning (it paid off though!).