Book Review: Court of Fives by Kate Elliot

Author: Kate Elliott
Release Date: 2015
Pages: 438 (but my Kindle says 307???)
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

(First of all, my ancestors are surely rolling over in their graves in shame at my failure to recognize this as a setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt. In my defense I’ve never studied Ancient Egyptian history, though I suppose that is not much of a defense. In any case, this book makes my people look damn good, which makes me happy! Apparently this book is also inspired by Little Women, which I’ve never read, and American Ninja Warrior, which definitely came through.)

I have to say, I am utterly baffled by the multitude of passionate one-star reviews on Goodreads. I can see nothing in this book that would inspire such vehement dislike! I didn’t love this book in its entirety, but I didn’t hate it, and there were certainly many parts of it that I loved.

Jessamy is a mixed-race girl in a world where such unions are uncommon and scorned, given that her mother’s race are a denigrated and oppressed group called “Commoners”. The book begins with Jessamy determined to run the “Fives” a gymnastic competition modeled after American Ninja Warrior that probably would have been way cooler to someone interested in that kind of stuff (I don’t mind watching it, but reading about athletic feats is kind of dull). She’s a fascinating protagonist if not entirely likable; she is certainly selfish, putting her family at risk just to run in this competition she’s not supposed to be in, but I’m really annoyed that reviewers seem to hate her for this. This streak of selfishness and self-determination is what makes her incredibly interesting. Again, I wasn’t sure I found her entirely likable, though not because of this – there was just something in her narrative voice that lacked consistency.

Major characters include Jes’s mother and three sisters, all of whom were fully-fleshed characters in their own right. Familial interactions between them, and their father, were given the spotlight, an unusual move in YA books where parents are usually absent and siblings only exists as props. I loved the messy dynamics portrayed in this family, as though clearly conveyed the stress they all live under, being a mixed-race family amongst people that hate them for it. The crux of the plot involves Jes rescuing her family, putting them and herself first. Also, this is random, but there’s one hell of a badass childbirth scene in this book that I loved. A woman actually gives birth in a crouching position and then eats raw placenta! The reason I mention this is not just because I’m a freak who loves childbirth scenes where women support women, but also because it’s where I can see Kate Elliott shining through. I’ve heard her speak at conferences and she is an unabashed feminist who talks often about writing women as they are, rather than what people want them to be. In this scene, and in much of the book, I could see this philosophy.

That said, the inevitable romance did drag the book down, in my opinion. I can certainly see why it was there but I didn’t find the love interest that interesting, though Elliott certainly tried to make him well-developed. He was a kind boy, but still retained the privilege of his race and class, which was reflected in his occasional ignorance. I definitely appreciated this depth, and yes, he was helpful to the plot, but it seems like he exists just to create drama for the next book. I totally get it – I just don’t like it.

Unlike many other readers I did not mind the dialogue, which is very formal and at times even archaic. I actually kind of liked it! It gave the story a fanciful flair! What I did think dragged the book down was the odd, unbalanced pacing, and the overly detailed descriptions of the “Fives” and everything to do with it. Again, I understand why this happened – this book needs to introduce an entire series and the “Fives” has to do with the mythology of the world – but I just didn’t like it. Speaking of mythology, the worldbuilding here is pretty damn fascinating and original!

Overall, while I myself did not love this book, I do think it is an objectively good book. It is well-written and engaging, with distinguishable characters, rich worldbuilding, and intelligent commentary on race and class and oppression. I would have to say the plot is its weakest point, again because of the strange pacing, but it’s not terrible, and otherwise I saw nothing that would help me understand the one-star reviews. It’s a solid 3.5 from me.

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