Title: Poisoned Blade
Author: Kate Elliott
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult
Publisher: Little, Brown
Publication Date: August 16 2016
Hardcover: 468 Pages
Jessamy is moving up the ranks of the Fives—the complex athletic contest favored by the lowliest Commoners and the loftiest Patrons in her embattled kingdom. Pitted against far more formidable adversaries, success is Jes’s only option, as her prize money is essential to keeping her hidden family alive. She leaps at the chance to tour the countryside and face more competitors, but then a fatal attack on Jes’s traveling party puts her at the center of the war that Lord Kalliarkos—the prince she still loves—is fighting against their country’s enemies. With a sinister overlord watching her every move and Kal’s life on the line, Jes must now become more than a Fives champion…She must become a warrior.
Stand alone or series: Book 2 in the Court of Fives series. Review of book 1 – Court of Fives – HERE.
How did we get this book: Bought
Format (e- or p-): print
FULL DISCLOSURE: We have published a story by Kate Elliott, The Beatriceid.
Few things are a certainty in this life. One of them is how a Kate Elliott book will never be a simplistic affair – rather, her books will always be complex, multifaceted, well-thought out and intricate. There is never one level, instead you get multiple layers and just like the Fives within the story itself, the main character Jessamy (Spider!) goes through different stages toward an end game. What that end game will be, no one can guess at this stage but the journey so far has been incredible. Court of Fives introduced us to this world and characters; Poisoned Blade increases the stakes, amps the game twofold by building up on the incredible cliff-hanger at the end of Court of Fives with an engaging, tense, fun narrative of well, awesome.
It kicks off right after Spider betrays Lord Kal – he gets sent to war for losing the Fives, Spider is hailed the winner and will continue her training. The prize money she wins is – she hopes – going to be essential in keeping her family alive after she rescued them from certain death. Keeping her family a secret, struggling with her lasting feelings for Kal and her frustration with her father’s actions is not all there is to it. There is nothing superficial about any of this although one could be fooled by an initial impression.
That initial impression would tell you that this is a story about a young, strong-willed girl who wants to play a game and gets stuck in the trappings and machinations of an evil overlord. Even though that is an amazing foundation, in fact, Poisoned Blade builds up on it to tell a story about a nation, a nation divided between conqueror and conquered, with all the incredibly difficult stuff that comes out of this. When so much time has passed that the conquered don’t even remember who they are. Or at least, that’s the official narrative. If this story proves anything, it more than shows that the winner’s narrative is faulty, incomplete and oppressive.
As many characters are quick to remark, Jes stands firmly in the in-between, as a mixed race child of a patron and a commoner. Her position is precarious but potentially powerful exactly because of that – as a Fives champion, she is popular, well-liked and could well rally people to a cause. But Jes – at least not to start with – is not worried about her nation, about her home to that extent.
It’s only when she is taken away from her hometown, when she sees the world at large and is faced with different narratives that she starts to truly listen. She is not quite there yet but I have no doubt that Jes is a heroine for the ages. This book has pretty much everything: exciting action and game playing sequences, romance, political machinations, building up to a cultural and social revolution, family drama, all wrapped up in a cosy revenge story and against a fantastical background that includes magic, spirits and maybe-zombies?
On the downside, I am less engaged with the romantic plotline between Jess and Kal than I perhaps ought to be. Instead I definitely favour Kal’s adversary (I am SO hilarious), the poet Ro. Let us all hope my ship will fly – I simply cannot wait for book 3, Buried Heart (WHOSE HEART IS BURIED KATE ELLIOTT???) to find out. This might be one of my favourite books of the year so far.
And just because…
Kiss off, adversary!
What Ana said. Especially this part: A Kate Elliott novel will never, ever be a simple or didactic affair. There is nuance, and power, and intelligence, and passion, and ALL THE GOOD THINGS in a Kate Elliott novel (and short story, and nonfiction essay, for that matter). Poisoned Blade is no exception.
The follow-up to last year’s phenomenal Court of Fives, Poisoned Blade picks up immediately where that novel kisses off (ha), with Jessamy having saved her mother and sisters from being buried alive in a tomb, and betraying her friend, the highborn Lord Kalliarkos, on the Fives court. Instead of letting him win, thus giving him a way from out beneath his politically scheming uncle’s thumb, Jes takes the victory for herself–to save her family and protect them from the same man. But now, Jes fears that she has not only ruined her friendship (and possibly more) with Kal, but has also catapulted herself into a world of deception, political machination, and subtlety that she is not ready to face. The Poisoned Blade is Jes’s story, as she navigates the tricky path of celebrity adversary, her stable master’s calculations and demands, the intrigues of the court, the simmering rebellion of the Efean people against their Patron conquerers, and the eye-opening realities of history versus truth, and the ever-present spark of magic.
For me, the best parts of this book are threefold: 1. Jessamy’s arc as a character and her continued growth as she learns more about Efea; 2. The tension of history, memory, and magic between the Efeans and the Saorese, as told through the eyes of a mixed-race girl born of both worlds; 3. The sweet awesome action of more Fives courts and derring-do.
As a protagonist, Jes soars. Her particular archetype as a heroine reminds me so much of Katniss Everdeen in Catching Fire in this second book–gifted with impressive physical abilities (and the knowledge of how to use those abilities to her benefit), facing an impossible position as a celebrity but also a symbolic figure for rebellion, and desperate to do anything to keep her family safe. There’s a lot of Catching Fire in this book, actually, when I think about it: high stakes action that is a graduation from the amateur league of book 1, complex political machinations (that go largely over Jes’s head, as she is more of a bull/brute force instead of a finesse/subtle operative), the tension between the commoners/outsiders and the patrons/overlords; hell, even the love triangle-ish thing going on between Jes and Kal versus Jes and the poet. (I’m all team Jes, by the way.) I don’t see any of these parallels as bad, mind you–not just because I adore Catching Fire, but because while Poisoned Blade might share some of the same tentpoles, it is very much its own novel. And that, in large part, is due to protagonist Jessamy and her unique perspective and place in this world.
As Ana mentions, Jes is such an intriguing character because she straddles two different worlds. The “mule” daughter of a Saorese man (and celebrated war general) and a common Efean woman, Jess and her sisters are mixed race and mixed class, somehow on the receiving end of the worst part of both of the worlds that they straddle. Jess is darker skinned and not as pretty or refined as her more Saorese-looking sisters, which means the Efean public is more likely to trust her–however, her flawless Saorese accent and her upbringing as a hidden, but well-bred and educated young woman in the Patron style, means she is also not at ease or completely at home in Efea. Jessamy knows little about half of her heritage and the strife that now stirs in the belly of the Efean masses–but in Poisoned Blade, she starts to understand more fully this other important part of her past and her people. Through Jes’s eyes, we see how history has been destroyed and rewritten by the Patron class, but how vestiges of Efean custom and tradition–a matriarchal society, no less–remain and effect change. One of my major complaints from the first book was a sense of feeling rushed and incomplete with regeards to Saorese and Efean tradition; in this second book, Elliott skillfully expands on this commentary of race, heritage, custom, and rebellion. As Jes learns and grows, so too does her role and place in Efea. And that, my friends, is awesome.
Of course, the thing that I love so much–SO MUCH–in this book and in its predecessor are the Fives themselves. This book has several wonderful action sequences, with Jes taking big risks–both on and off the court. I am a sucker for action, and adored the higher stakes of this second novel. Not to mention, the only thing I like more than a good arena scene is accompanying political machinations–of which Poisoned Blade has several.
Seriously, if you haven’t read this series yet, what are you waiting for?
I loved this book. It’s another winner from Kate Elliott, absolutely on my list of favorites of the year so far, and I cannot wait for book 3.
Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:
No one must suspect what I plan to do tonight. I should stay in my bed, content with the place I’ve earned for myself as an adversary in Garon Stable. I should.
But I don’t.
In darkness I swing my legs off my cot. My toes brush the stiff straps of my leather sandals, which I remember to shake out in case a scorpion has decided to rest there. Nothing stirs that I can hear, and it is too dark to see. I have to go now before it’s too late.
After lacing up my sandals I creep to the end of the cot. A cedar chest stores the few garments and necessities I possess. I finger through the folded cloth and gather up my formal parade livery, roll up the garments, and tie the bundle atop my head beneath a headscarf.
The canvas curtains that divide the barracks into eight cubicles scrape the floor as I push past them. I wait, alert for any sound from one of the other four women who live here. They are adversaries too, competitors who run the Fives, the most popular game in the land of Efea. Running the Fives used to be all I dreamed about. Now that I have what I’ve always wanted, I should be ecstatic.
“Jes?” Mis whispers from the next cubicle. “Is that you?”
When I run the game of Fives, one of my strengths is that I know how to act decisively with a strategy already in my head. “Just have to go to the latrine,” I whisper back, hoping she doesn’t hear the tremor of emotion in my voice. ?She speaks the words I know she was desperate to say all evening at our victory feast, but was too kind to say in front of everyone else.
“What will happen to Lord Kalliarkos now that you’ve defeated him on the Fives court?”
“What happens on the other side of the wall in Garon Palace has nothing to do with adversaries like us.” The lie pours like tar from my lips.
“I’m sorry. I know you really liked him. The attention of a handsome and friendly highborn boy must seem irresistible. But after a while you’ll see it’s better to stay as far away from Patron lords as possible. Even him.”
A stone of foreboding lodges in my throat. I can barely force words past it. “I know.”
I hear her roll over on her cot and yawn. “May you have a quiet rest, Jes. If you can sleep after all the glory you won with your victory today.”
She says nothing more, and I steady my breathing, trying to calm the restlessness that plagues me, but it twists in my gut like shame and dread. If I don’t do this while I still have the chance, I’ll never be ready to move forward into the new life I’ve earned for myself.
You can read the full excerpt online HERE.
Ana: 8 – Excellent and leaning toward 9
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