In order to discuss this young adult fantasy, I have to get sort of spoilery. I try to avoid specifics, but I do talk about the general outline of the book.
So, Court of Fives, described in various places as Little Women meets Hunger Games. Really? Teen gladiators and . . . Little Women?
On the one hand, I expect it would be nearly impossible to find anyone less interested in sports than I am. But on the other, when I heard that Kate Elliott was writing this, her first young adult novel, I knew I had to try it.
One chapter in, I was totally hooked.
Court of Fives as a young adult book
Whenever I read a YA, I’m reading for two: the me of now, of course, in my mid-sixties, with more than fifty years of passionate reading stitching together my life, but also the me of yore. I make no claim to dictate what “teens of today” will like—as if they all had the same taste. I can only predict fairly confidently what I would have liked as a teen. Which isn’t always what pleases me now.
As a teen, I would have been gripped from the gitgo by Jessamy, who has been training hard to run the Court of Fives, a kind of American Ninja Warrior obstacle course with five separate fields.
Not that I cared about sports as a kid anymore than I do now, but I did understand wanting something passionately, and working toward it with every ounce of energy. The single-minded focus, and the nascent sense of identity wrapped up in competition would have electrified me as a teen reader. I felt that Elliott nailed the teen focus here, especially the obliviousness to what was really going on with the adults. And above all, the consequences of actions.
I would have especially loved the book for Jes’s flouting of the rules. I was always enthusiastic about anything the authorities forbade for what seemed to me in my passionate teenage ignorance to be nonsensical reasons. I was a teen in the mid-sixties, when school authorities were still telling girls that the only careers ahead of them were nurse, secretary, or teacher, and it was ultra-important to be a “lady” as no man would marry you if you were perceived as one of ‘those’ kinds of girls.
Court of Fives in Conversation with Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women
As a kid reader, I bounced hard off the first chapter of Little Women. The sisters seemed too niminy-piminy to me, the mom way too preachy. And nothing interesting seemed to happen for my adventure-thirsting eye.
As a teen I made better headway, though I ran into problems understanding the last third of the book, which was Jo’s painful graduation to adulthood, and way over my narrow-minded teen head. The connection to Alcott would have passed me right by, except maybe for the similarity in a couple of the names, and I’m sure I would have thought myself very clever in picking up that Jo was kind of like Jes, and Any kind of like Amaya, and Kal kind of like Laurie.
The adult me has read Little Women several times, each reading with a deeper appreciation for Louisa May Alcott’s sense of humor, her compassion, and her struggle toward female freedom while remaining dutiful to family and societal expectations. Not only have I come to regard the book as seminal in many ways, but it’s been interesting to look for how it influenced writers coming after Alcott, all of whom engaged with different aspects of the book that so inspired them.
I was eager to see what Elliott brought from that book, especially to the subgenre of teen gladiators, one that I’d begun to feel has been pretty tapped out.
Jessamy is indeed very like Jo: in many ways more boy than girl, passionate, impulsive, mono-focussed until she runs headlong into trouble, then is determined to do what is right.
Maraya, the eldest, is and isn’t like Meg. She’s more sober than Jo, with a greater sense of responsibility, which echoes Meg. Maraya wants to become an Archivist, something possible for a girl with a handicap, though Maraya demonstrates unexpected layers as the book progresses.
Marmee and Jes’s beautiful, peace-making mother have a great deal in common, as do the distant Mr. March and Jes’s martial father.
Probably the most ephemeral comparison is the gentle, other-worldly Beth to the scowling, impassioned Bettany, who shows up briefly in this book (I expect she will get her innings later in the story arc). Leaving the triangle from Alcott’s book: Amy, Laurie, and Jo, in Amaya, Kal, and Jes.
I kept pausing to admire what a brilliant job Elliott did with these three. Amy’s self-absorption, awareness of fashion and high company, and her often-hidden smarts, are beautifully played out in Amaya, who at times appears to be a caricature of a stupid, selfish fluffball, until she very sharply isn’t. Amaya has unexpected layers—as did Amy—making me unable to predict where Elliott is going to go with this character, especially with respect to the three way relationship of Amy/Jo/Laurie in Little Women.
Kal is just as brilliantly drawn, and I deeply appreciated the step-by-step development of friendship to romantic awakenings in his and Jes’s relationship. When I looked back at self and teen friends, the way these two’s friendship suddenly sparked to physical awareness rang utterly true to experience.
Add to that Kal’s seeming easy-going weakness and tendency to make friends with everyone, in spite of the predatory attitudes of the males in his family, which hearkened back to Laurie’s easy familiarity in spite of his wealth and social rank.
When Kal talks about politics toward the end of the book, he revealed a depth that bolted him up to favorite character status. Which I will come back to.
Bringing me again to Jes/Jo. At the very beginning, the smart kid who thinks she maneuver around the plodding adults and their maddeningly constraining and pointless rules, resulting in disaster unforeseen by a teen, rang absolutely true. Jes could have pulled off her stunt but she has no idea how easily she played into the hands of an extremely powerful, and predatory, high ranking lord, who is running a high-level long con.
I found Jes’s error totally convincing, as I did her inability to see the consequences of her actions until they were already playing out. The rest of the book is what she does about it—and I found it nearly impossible to put the book down as Jes makes the painful shift from blinkered kid to young adult.
Court of Fives to an adult reader
As an adult reader, I can enjoy the above-mentioned overlays, but most of all, the skillfully wrought worldbuilding.
Elliott has taken for her models the Roman empire and Ancient Egypt—specifically Ptolemaic Egypt, which was a hybrid of Macedonian and Egyptian cultures, Ptolemy being one of Alexander the Great’s generals.
Ptolemaic Egypt produced some of the most amazing queens of history, including the famous Cleopatra. But she is not the only one, she just got written up more by the Romans who tangled with her.
Elliott gives us the Patrons (Roman conquerors) in Saro, who have done their best to subdue the Commoners (Egyptians) of Efea. The Patrons expect women to be retiring in their martially motivated male world, but the Patron women have their ways of grasping power.
The Commoner women, when away from the iron grip of Patron laws, have a more equitable balance gender-wise. And the Efean culture is far from being eradicated, though a great deal of it seems to have been adopted and then adapted by the Saroese.
Central being the Court of Fives, which Jes slowly is beginning to discover is far more than merely a game to entertain Patrons.
As Jes sets about righting the wrong that her father is unable to fix, she gets a baptism of fire in political history. Kal, she learns, sees more clearly than anyone the distortion that power brings to the top, and he is quietly determined not to become like them. His strengths are not the usual YA bad-boy broody and violent ultra-warrior strengths.
The last fourth of the book began to reveal Kal’s depths as well as the many threats surrounding him, giving extra punch to the climax.
I really appreciated what Elliott explores through this book about family obligations, social obligations, culture and custom in conflict and change, individualism and self-worth juxtaposed against learning how deeply one’s decisions affect others. And what one might have to do about it.
There is also a sharply observed reflection on what power does to people at the top of a given hierarchy, especially when claiming predominance over another culture, but the book is not all about the rot of politics. Magic is here, too, with a couple moments of breath-taking sense of wonder that give me hopes for more.
Court of Fives is one of those novels I would have kept on my shelves through the decades, finding new layers to appreciate on successive readings. And I am impatient for the next.