Brigdh (wordsofastory) wrote,

Reading Wednesday

What did you just finish?
Court of Fives by Kate Elliott. A YA novel, the start of a trilogy, which the author describes as, and I quote, “Little Women meets American Ninja Warrior in a fantasy setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt”. I had some problems with the book, but come on, how can you not love something with that premise?

In the capital city of Hellenistic Egypt Saryenia, Jessamy is the mixed-race daughter of a Roman Patron general and an Egyptian Commoner woman. However, interracial marriages are illegal, and so Jessamy and her sisters exist in a strange quasi-legal status: raised as proper Patron girls, but with little actual rights or opportunities.

The sisters, by the way, consist of:
-Meg Maraya, the oldest daughter, dutiful and concerned with respectability
-Jo Jessamy herself, an impulsive tomboy who strikes up a close friendship with Laurie Kalliarkos, a handsome and wealthy Patron boy
-Beth Bettany, who doesn't actually appear much on-screen in this first book but is described as "sickly", though in this case it seems to be a way of excusing her rage at their social confinement
-Amy Amaya, pretty and flirtatious and the daughter most likely to make an upperclass marriage

Jessamy's one desire in life is to run the Fives, a complicated obstacle course-like ceremony which holds a similar place in Saryenian society as the gladiatorial games did in Roman life: competitors might die or might become revered celebrities, and everyone comes to watch. Unfortunately proper Patron women are not supposed to participate, and so Jessamy has been forbidden by her family to train – which doesn't actually stop her from doing so.

This is only the set-up for the first hundred or so pages of the book, after which one plot twist follows another so swiftly that it would take an exceedingly long review to cover everything that happens. Throughout there are themes of colonialism, class and race, gender (Commoner society operates as a matriarchy, whereas Patron women are given few rights and expected mainly to be modest and obedient), betrayal, court politics, religion, the writing of history (ie, by the victors), and of course, the inevitable YA love interest. The setting and worldbuilding are incredible, and so many of the ideas in this book were just fantastic and so appealing, the very best sort of fantasy and action fun.

Which is good, because I also had some problems. The biggest was the writing itself; the story is told in first-person present tense, and comes off as more simplistic and shallow than anything I've read by Elliott before. I'm not sure if she was trying to modify her style to appeal to the YA market or what, but when a book has more superficial writing than The Hunger Games (its obvious archetype), it's pretty bad. Related to this, the characterization and relationships, particularly with that Love Interest, tend toward the one-dimensional. Finally, the whole premise of the Court of Fives never really worked for me; I couldn't help but find it a bit silly to read so much drama and emotional weight given to America Ninja Warrior, Fantasy Egypt Style. Though an interview with the author included in the back of the book, about the importance of Title IX and women athletes to her life, was quite touching and justified the idea a bit more.

Ultimately I loved it and will absolutely be reading the sequels, but I can't recommend it wholeheartedly. The fun parts for me outweighed the bad writing, but that's simply not going to be true of everyone.

The Question of Red by Laksmi Pamuntjak. A novel set in contemporary Indonesia, but centered around the retelling of a myth from the Mahabharata (one of India's two great epics, which is also hugely important across much of southeast Asia):

Once upon a time, there were three princesses who were sisters: Amba, Ambika, and Ambalika. It was intended that they should marry King Salva, but before they could do so, they were abducted by the famous warrior Bhishma, who carried them away in his chariot (this being an accepted way of getting a wife, at least in stories). Bhishma didn't want to marry them himself, but gave the princesses to the king he served. However, Amba refused and went back to Salva. Salva wouldn't accept her, saying that she was now another man's leavings. So Amba goes back to Bhishma and says that he has to marry her, because he's the one who won her. Bhishma refuses since he'd taken a life-long vow of chastity.

Enraged, Amba becomes a hermit in the forest and devotes the rest of her life to prayers and penances, asking the gods for Bhishma's destruction, since she blames him for ruining her life. Her wish was granted, and she was reborn as Shikhandi, a girl who transformed into a man and became a warrior. Many years later, Bhishma and Shikhandi face each other on opposite sides of a huge war, and Shikhandi participates in Bhishma's death.

In The Question of Red, this is reimagined as the story of Amba, a middle-class girl from a small town on Java who becomes a college student majoring in English Literature; Salwa, the perfect fiance her parents arrange for her; and Bhisma, the doctor from East Germany she falls in love with. The book has a nonlinear structure, opening in 2006 with the image of a middle-aged Amba weeping on the grave of a long-lost Bhisma, then jumping back to her childhood in the 50s and their meeting in the 60s, and forward and backward multiple times after that. Although the focus is always on Amba's personal life, the backdrop consists of large-scale political events: an attempted coup by the Communist Party on September 30, 1965; the subsequent backlash against communists and their allies which led to hundreds of thousands or even millions of people killed; the imprisonment and forced labor of political dissidents in exile on the island of Buru throughout the 1970s; and violent sectarian clashes between Christian and Muslim groups in the late 1990s. I admit that I know practically nothing about Indonesian history, and so this was all new information to me that I frequently found more interesting than Amba's individual story. Which is not the book's fault, but my own for coming to it without the expected background of knowledge. Pamuntjak has clearly done tons of research, and in an afterword describes how she used interviews and personal stories to flesh out her depiction of the prison on Buru in particular.

Unfortunately the book is probably longer than it needs to be, and dragged for me in a few places. But overall it's lyric, romantic, and very well-done. It's not what I expected from the premise, but I'm glad that it exposed me to this history, which I really should learn more about.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.

What are you currently reading?
The Edge of Worlds by Martha Wells. The last one of the Books of the Raksura series! D: Well, the last one published so far. Plus I still have the short stories to look forward to.

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