Kate Elliott is an author who so many people, namely people whom I respect the opinion of, seem to be very fond of. I hung out with her at Worldcon and found her to be a lovely person – funny, smart, laid back, and a blast to be around. I had been under the impression that she wrote female-targeted fantasy (as in, aiming for a younger female audience, not ‘by’ or ‘about’ women). This is great, but it’s generally “not my thing”. I can enjoy this style if the writing is good (ie Mary Robinette Kowal, Marie Brennan, etc), however even if it is, I tend to not enjoy it as much as books that are more in my subject matter wheelhouse. I’ve been informed that I was not technically correct in that assumption; however, with this novel, my ridiculous assumption wasn’t wholly incorrect.
Court of Fives is a YA offering from Kate, which centers around a semi-noble family that is in the midst of turmoil after their patron lord passes away. The protagonist, Jessamy, is a young teen, interested in Running the Fives, an athletic event that is essentially a Ninja-Warrior style gauntlet event; one that is highly respected and spectated, however is not considered a necessarily honorable thing for noblefolks to compete in.
The book begins with several chapters that were, frankly, a big turnoff for me – very much YA-style writing, focusing on whiny, obnoxious teenage girls, in a society obsessed with honor and propriety. Normally, this sort of things is like nails on a chalkboard for me, however I understand why people enjoy it. This is very much a personal preference, so I’m not going to condemn a book for it. I was, however, afraid after a few chapters that this is what I’d be getting into the rest of the book. Luckily for me, it turns out it was largely a setup – definitely to appeal to a certain audience, but it’s really just the tip of the iceberg.
The book, frankly, surprised me after this start. It got serious in a hurry, and very much full drama. Kate wrote in a lot of nice little details and hints of future events, and seamlessly integrated the worldbuilding aspects, history, etc, into the story. Some things were casually mentioned then largely forgotten (animatronic spider anyone? No other instances of similar things I can remember, but my memory sucks), but in general it all came back around, and when you read about something happening, it mattered to later events. The book was quite tight in that way – not a ton of fluff, not an excess of anything, not a lot of wasted space.
And, at the risk of spoilers or anything – THAT. FUCKING. ENDING.. I actually said “OH SNAP!” aloud when I read the ending. I thought PERHAPS she’d go that direction, I thought MAYBE she would, but I was still shocked when she did. It’s incongruous with some of the tone of the book – hard, edgy, and jarring. I thought Kate handled the ending very well, and gave the book a much more memorable final portion.
Overall, the book was an thrilling hybrid of “not my style” type elements, combined with a big pile of “wow this is awesome”. I thought the writing was high quality, the action was subtle but exciting, and the worldbuilding – while smaller-scale – was quite tight and deftly handled. I could live without the whiny teenage girl aspect, but again, I know the target audience of this book is more into that kind of thing than I am – I don’t think Kate had 30 year old bearded males in mind when writing this novel. Maybe she did, I’m pretty memorable. Overall, this book surprised me a lot, especially how invested I got, and how much I ended up enjoying it. It’s definitely turned me on to reading more of Kate’s work.