Genre: YA Fantasy
Synopsis: Jes and her sisters have grown up between two worlds. Their Patron father is a lower member of the aristocracy, in a land which his people had conquered. Their Common mother comes from a world and a culture that they are never allowed to know. Jes is raised akin to a Patron, but could never belong to that world. Still, she plays the part of the dutiful daughter so as not to bring shame to her father…except for one thing.
She runs the Fives, a prestigious athletic competition complete with obstacle courses. And then disaster strikes her family, and Jes’ skills in the Fives not only determine how she surfaces from the tragedy, but also become her family’s only hope.
Series: First in a series.
POV: First person.
Kate Elliott is a veteran fantasy author, and it shows. The plot points flow into each other smoothly, leading into some high highs. The characters, even minor ones, have their own wants and needs and quirks. People’s decisions aren’t oversimplified. It was just such a well-crafted read.
As the story goes on, the stakes get progressively higher. At first, Jes worries for herself and her family’s reputation. Then she has to figure out how to protect her family from danger. And finally, she has to make a personal choice that will have ramifications in the greater political sphere, an arena she was never supposed to be able to touch.
Jes is a bit of a strategist, which was nice to see. It’s partly tactics and analysis that gets her through the courses she loves to run. And it lets her figure out what the people around her are planning, once she gets the requisite background information. One of the reasons many protagonists aren’t written as too smart is that it can take away from the surprise of the story. But this is handled cleverly in the narrative, because figuring out things others haven’t can make Jes’ choices incomprehensible to them. It’s a potential that’s utilized in some cool ways, including as an additional obstacle to our protagonist.
The narrative ultimately leads Jes to one character-defining choice. And she doesn’t do the thing that will make her look the best to the people around her or to the audience. But instead, as ever, she’s thinking of repercussions further into the future. I find that kind of awesome, and it’ll be interesting to see her deal with the consequences in a future book.
Jes’ relationship with her parents, as a mixed-race child in a society where her parents aren’t even allowed to marry, is complicated. She loves her parents, and yet there are things about her life that neither she nor her sisters can help but resent. Her father has done far better by his partner and his children than most men of his position in his society would have. And yet, that’s not a high bar to compare him to. And as a result of their heritage and upbringing, they don’t belong anywhere.
I do have to admit, I love how Jes and her sisters were fully realized characters, with their own complexities and desires. Four sisters, each expected to rigidly follow the customs of a people who will never accept them. And each of them finds their own way to deal with their lot and their own aspirations–none of them comfortably fit into the role of the obedient child. And none of them are archetypes.
Maraya is outwardly calm and compliant, but much of what she says to her father is in the interests of smoothing her way to a career in the Archives, a place she can be allowed to have a future so long as she hides her disability. And the place she wants to have a future. She’s educated and genuinely kind, and she knows how to be gently manipulative when required.
Amaya is considered the only one of the girls to have a chance at a proper marriage–not only because of her appearance, but because she’s willing to actively pursue it herself. She’s willful and tricky and fierce. And only afraid of spiders when it’s advantageous for her to be, which I think is funny. But she also has secrets, even from her sisters.
Bettany is the only one who’s outwardly rebellious, who comes into direct conflict with her father. She’s also the sister we know the least about, because she keeps maneuvering herself away from all of the action. Of course, even the reasons why we don’t see her provide us with hints about her personality.
And our protagonist, Jessamy, acts the part of the dutiful daughter…and then sneaks off to participate in forbidden competitions, with no one but her sisters the wiser. This is something that I really like about the story. They all look for ways to be who they are within the rigid framework they’re forced to work with. They all resist being controlled, and find their own ways around that control.
So there were a number of things I appreciated about this book, and I really enjoyed the read.