Warning: may contain mild spoilers for the previous book, Court of Fives
In Poisoned Blade, the second novel in her COURT OF FIVES trilogy, Kate Elliott builds on the strengths of Court of Fives and expands upon it, weaving tangled webs of intrigue, deceit, and impressively multi-layered political schemes. Anyone who thinks Young Adult fiction can’t successfully handle themes like a culture’s endurance in defiance of colonialism, the myriad socio-economic factors leading toward revolution, or racial and/or gender inequality, needs to read these books: Elliott covers these issues and much more while crafting a compelling narrative, interesting and unique characters, and a living, breathing world.
Poisoned Blade (2016) opens mere hours after Court of Fives ends, thrusting victorious Adversary Jessamy Garon (previously Tonor) into the highest echelons of Saryenia’s social classes. Her triumph at the Royal Fives Court brings riches and fame, enough to give her a taste of the security that could be possible for her family if she continues to win, but comes at the cost of her dear Lord Kalliarkos’ freedom. His defeat ensures his enlistment in the faction of the royal army under her father’s command, currently at war with the three other kingdoms of Old Saro. That same night, as she lurks on the outskirts of a lavish celebration, Jes accidentally overhears a whispered and unseen conversation implying that sinister plans are afoot which threaten the current Saroese rulers; shortly afterward, she is made aware that the so-called “Commoners” of the city, the true people of Efea, grow restless under generations of oppression and are making their own plans, led by a charismatic poet named Ro-emnu.
Meanwhile, Lord Gargaron seeks to further his own ambition by promoting Jes’ talents in the Fives Court, and his insistence that she act as the mascot for his personal Fives training stable forces Jes to come into contact with members of the royal court, including Lady Menoë, who happens to be her father’s new wife as well as Kalliarkos’ older sister. Jes, a child of mixed Saroese and Efean heritage, looks too much like each of her parents to blend in with either group, but must decide who she is and where her loyalties lie as the stage is set for a battle that may tear her beloved city apart.
Elliott reveals the Efean countryside this time around, sending Jes on a whirlwind tour of the settlements and farmlands surrounding her home city. Her mother and most of her siblings are safely removed from Lord Gargaron’s machinations, but Bettany is still missing, and Jes is tasked with bringing her twin safely home. Under clever pretenses, Jes creates the opportunity for herself and some other Garon Stable adversaries to visit more provincial Fives Courts, where they soak in local gossip and news of the ongoing war. From fields with gently waving stalks of grain to blowing desert sands, Efea comes to life in precisely rendered detail, allowing the reader to be completely immersed in the land and the culture of its people, which flourish even as their symbols and beliefs are cannibalized and appropriated by conquering invaders.
Jes matures tremendously, forced to determine who she wants to be and what she wants to stand for while other characters try to force her into prescriptive molds. Her shift from thinking of her mother’s people as “Commoners” to “Efeans” is a powerful moment, as much as her gradual process of subverting conventions, both her own and of many of the people she encounters; nonetheless, it sometimes seems that there is always someone waiting to remind her that she will never be welcome in their particular social caste. Jes is nothing like perfect: as skilled as she is on the Fives Court, she’s often at a loss in social situations, and while she makes some brilliant strategic choices, the perceived motives behind her actions affect her allies and loved ones in profound and surprising ways. No matter what she decides and no matter where she lands, she risks hurting the people she loves, and being hurt by them in return.
Poisoned Blade covers more time than its predecessor, sometimes letting weeks pass between important events, but the breakneck pace never falters for an instant. A longer span lends credence to the build-up of tensions and hostilities, as well; Rome wasn’t built in a day, nor did it fall that quickly. Drips and drabs of exposition are included for readers who aren’t devouring these books back-to-back, but those brief passages never bog down the prose. The focus is fully on Jes as she attempts to navigate her way through a royal court more perilous than a pit of scorpions, the treachery and unreliability of the human heart, and the expectations of the Saroese and Efean people, both of which contain people who would gladly use her to further their own agendas without any regard for her wishes or well-being. It’s up to Jes to decide how much of a pawn she’s willing to be, and how far she’s willing to use others in the name of protecting herself and her family.
The second book of a trilogy is, too often, just a “bridge novel:” a placeholder between the first book and the third, in which characters meander about and very little actually happens other than establishing various circumstances for the novel to come. Poisoned Blade is far more than that, providing room for the characters and world to grow in impressive ways while teasing a grand and potentially heartbreaking finale. Highly recommended.
The second volume of Kate Elliott’s COURT OF FIVES trilogy does what every good sequel should do: deepen the characters, expand the world, and raise the stakes. At the end of the first book we left our heroine Jessamy in a predicament, forced to choose between the safety of her family or the success of her love interest, and ultimately deciding (since the author is Kate Elliott) to protect her mother and sisters over the victory and well-being of Prince Kalliarkos.
The decision hinged on whether or not she would win the illustrious Court of Fives, a popular athletic competition in which she’s always excelled, and which provides her with the prize money she needs to take care of her family despite Kalliarkos’s insistence that he’ll do it for her.
But Kate Elliott never shies away from forcing her characters to make tough decisions, and ultimately Jessamy decides that her family is better off under her protection, rather than the more unpredictable promises of the ruling family.
It’s only the first of several tough calls she’ll have to make over the course of Poisoned Blade. The city of Saryenia is in ferment, with tensions rising between the ruling class of Patrons and the oppressed Efeans. As the daughter of a Patron man and an Efean woman, Jessamy has a foot in both worlds — as do her three sisters, all of whom are struggling just as hard as she to keep themselves afloat.
Jessamy leaps at the chance to tour the countryside with the rest of the Fives competitors, with the ulterior motive of searching for her sister Bettany, who was separated from the rest of her family in the previous book. But with war on the horizon and her overlord Gargaron’s eyes on her at all times, it’s certainly easier said than done.
A synopsis really can’t do these books justice, as there’s so much intrigue, so much fascinating world-building, so many alliances and twists and complex character dynamics, that to say much else would either render this review too long or spoil things for new readers.
Suffice to say that there are plenty of surprises here — for instance, having read the previous book I was struck by similarities between Jessamy’s sisters and the March girls from Little Women, a theory that was heartily subverted by what happens here. Elliottt kept me guessing in the best way possible, and I’ve already moved on to the final book, Buried Heart.