Title: Court of Fives (Court of Fives #1)
Author: Kate Elliott
Publisher: Little, Brown (YA)
Publication date: 18th August 2015
Court of Fives is my first book by Kate Elliott. My relationship with this book began very positively—the setting, the diversity, the concept of a rather simple plot at the heart of it all, wrapped up in layers of life and politics that invariably complicated an otherwise bare-bones idea. But by the end, I was left a little, inexplicably, wanting. Only, I’m not sure for what.
Jessamy wants to run the Fives; an athletic contest of varying activities and definitely some danger. But in the life she was born to, it would not be proper for her to do so. The accident of her birth conspires with her father’s (selfish) career aspirations to create a very suffocating atmosphere in which Jessamy is little more than a complication. She isn’t especially pretty, like one of her sisters, so cannot hope for a marriage to further the family’s (or her own) status; she isn’t especially bookish so has no desire to pursue a career as an Archivist or similar, unlike her very slightly disabled (she has a clubbed foot—which is seen as something other fathers might have killed or abandoned their children for, rather than admit their existence); and nor does she have a volatile temper and a blatant disregard of care for keeping up any kind of charade of being happy with the life she has, and therefore isn’t left to her own devices or indulged. Jessamy suffers from being too mild-mannered, too ordinary. Even so, she refuses to give up the idea of the Fives. She trains and practises in secret and must often beg and bribe her sisters in order to help her. This often causes tension, since ultimately the girls are nothing alike one another: they either lean into the restrictions and perceived nobility of their lives like cats into the sun, or rebel completely.
Nevertheless, Jessamy will not give up the Fives—and why should she? Even with the threat of being caught, she simply cannot stay away. And again—why should she? In the end, her family will be grateful for Jessamy’s disobedience and her disregard for being the perfect daughter for her father, because she will probably save their lives. When something unthinkable happens and the lives of Jessamy and her sisters are turned upside down, transformed forever and put in mortal danger by the machinations of a power-hungry man, it is only Jessamy who can help them. And she will do whatever it takes.
Court of Fives is such a complicated book—but then present me with a dysfunctional family and selfish parents, and I will have a field day. I use “complicated” in a good, positive way here. I like complicated families: I like real representations of parents who, even in spite of claiming (and also probably meaning it) to love their children, often see them as property. I like it because it happens and people need to see this. What made this uncomfortable dynamic between Jessamy and her family better, is that Jessamy doesn’t always see it—and when she might, her own feelings get in the way of how she reacts, logically and emotionally.
There were times I threw up my hands in utter disgust at the behaviour of Jessamy’s parents and the attitudes of those around the girls—but then this is how you’re supposed to react to blatant racism and injustice and sexism. So A+, Elliott, for pissing me off about all the right things.
Even so, I didn’t love this book. But I did like this book, and I do want to read the next.
I wanted to connect with this book so much more than I did, and I’m trying to put my finger on what I didn’t quite connect with. There’s diversity, different representations of cultures and religions, there’s racism and tension and the suggestion of characters veering towards same-sex relationships (a minor character—and dear, sweet gods, just give me fantasy that isn’t especially “queer”, but that is just normal and happens to have LGBT characters who are 100% part of the main cast and not just side characters—but at least in an unexpected place and with a potentially different story to tell). I should have lovedlovedloved this book. But instead, I liked it.
I connected with the characters, I appreciated the diversity, the tension, the plot in its entirety as well as in its separate threads—I loved every single concept woven through this book. And yet… I couldn’t connect enough to give it more than an enthusiastic (slightly baffled—at myself, not the book) three stars.
People will like this book; people will love Jessamy. At its heart, Court of Fives is a book about being able to do what you want to do—what makes you happy. A fig to imposed responsibility given through a constructed social role, through the expectations of others. Do what you need to do to be the person you want to be. That’s pretty huge, especially when delivered through something so innocuous as basically being an athlete. Jessamy runs the Fives for the sheer joy of it. That is quite possibly one of the most important messages in the book—and to find it in young adult, where young people are so often guilted this way and that for the sheer audacity of wanting to do things that make them happy, this is immensely pleasing for me.
Ultimately, Court of Fives is a great book and has so much chewy, gooey, goodness to really sink your teeth into. I’m not sure which elements of the story didn’t quite work for me and it does rather feel like grading an essay or exam a C+ or a B-, yet without quite knowing why. Elliott presents a vast and varied world that is easy to get lost in and feels far wider, far richer than we’ve been allowed to see just yet—and part of this is why I’m eager to read the next.