Book Review: Court of Fives by Kate Elliot

18068907Title: COURT OF FIVES
Author: Kate Elliott
Release Date: 2015
Pages: 438 (but my Kindle says 307???)
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
My Rating: ★★★☆☆(3.5/5)
Review on Goodreads

(First of all, my ancestors are surely rolling over in their graves in shame at my failure to recognize this as a setting inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt. In my defense I’ve never studied Ancient Egyptian history, though I suppose that is not much of a defense. In any case, this book makes my people look damn good, which makes me happy! Apparently this book is also inspired by Little Women, which I’ve never read, and American Ninja Warrior, which definitely came through.)

I have to say, I am utterly baffled by the multitude of passionate one-star reviews on Goodreads. I can see nothing in this book that would inspire such vehement dislike! I didn’t love this book in its entirety, but I didn’t hate it, and there were certainly many parts of it that I loved.

Jessamy is a mixed-race girl in a world where such unions are uncommon and scorned, given that her mother’s race are a denigrated and oppressed group called “Commoners”. The book begins with Jessamy determined to run the “Fives” a gymnastic competition modeled after American Ninja Warrior that probably would have been way cooler to someone interested in that kind of stuff (I don’t mind watching it, but reading about athletic feats is kind of dull). She’s a fascinating protagonist if not entirely likable; she is certainly selfish, putting her family at risk just to run in this competition she’s not supposed to be in, but I’m really annoyed that reviewers seem to hate her for this. This streak of selfishness and self-determination is what makes her incredibly interesting. Again, I wasn’t sure I found her entirely likable, though not because of this – there was just something in her narrative voice that lacked consistency.

Major characters include Jes’s mother and three sisters, all of whom were fully-fleshed characters in their own right. Familial interactions between them, and their father, were given the spotlight, an unusual move in YA books where parents are usually absent and siblings only exists as props. I loved the messy dynamics portrayed in this family, as though clearly conveyed the stress they all live under, being a mixed-race family amongst people that hate them for it. The crux of the plot involves Jes rescuing her family, putting them and herself first. Also, this is random, but there’s one hell of a badass childbirth scene in this book that I loved. A woman actually gives birth in a crouching position and then eats raw placenta! The reason I mention this is not just because I’m a freak who loves childbirth scenes where women support women, but also because it’s where I can see Kate Elliott shining through. I’ve heard her speak at conferences and she is an unabashed feminist who talks often about writing women as they are, rather than what people want them to be. In this scene, and in much of the book, I could see this philosophy.

That said, the inevitable romance did drag the book down, in my opinion. I can certainly see why it was there but I didn’t find the love interest that interesting, though Elliott certainly tried to make him well-developed. He was a kind boy, but still retained the privilege of his race and class, which was reflected in his occasional ignorance. I definitely appreciated this depth, and yes, he was helpful to the plot, but it seems like he exists just to create drama for the next book. I totally get it – I just don’t like it.

Unlike many other readers I did not mind the dialogue, which is very formal and at times even archaic. I actually kind of liked it! It gave the story a fanciful flair! What I did think dragged the book down was the odd, unbalanced pacing, and the overly detailed descriptions of the “Fives” and everything to do with it. Again, I understand why this happened – this book needs to introduce an entire series and the “Fives” has to do with the mythology of the world – but I just didn’t like it. Speaking of mythology, the worldbuilding here is pretty damn fascinating and original!

Overall, while I myself did not love this book, I do think it is an objectively good book. It is well-written and engaging, with distinguishable characters, rich worldbuilding, and intelligent commentary on race and class and oppression. I would have to say the plot is its weakest point, again because of the strange pacing, but it’s not terrible, and otherwise I saw nothing that would help me understand the one-star reviews. It’s a solid 3.5 from me.

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Book Review: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

25667918Title: BINTI
Author: Nedi Okorafor
Release Date: 2015
Pages: 96
Publisher: Tor
My Rating: ★★★☆☆ (3/5)
Review on Goodreads

I wasn’t as impressed by this book as I should have been. In order to discuss my displeasure with the plot, I will have to talk SPOILERS, so beware (I will try to be as vague as possible , but still).

Coming in at ninety-six pages, Binti has little overarching plot, but rather focuses on a single drawn-out event. Binti, a member of the reclusive Himba tribe, is the first of her people to travel to the prestigious Oomza University. One of the things I loved was the way Binti deals with other people’s prejudices, and the way POC-on-POC racism is portrayed (the Khoush, according to Okorafor, are meant to be Arab).

Soon into the journey to Oomza, the ship is attacked by the Meduse, who murder pretty much everyone on the ship except for Binti; she is saved by a strange object she picked up back home that seems to harm the Meduse. The rest of the book shows us Binti simply trying to survive the Meduse, figure out what they want, and then help them achieve this goal in order to save as many people as possible.

To cut the story short – she succeeds and prevents a bloodbath. However, what I just could not get behind and could not understand is Binti’s seeming lack of internal conflict about her relationship with the Meduse. She seems to have a lot of respect and some affection for them by the end, but these are the same beings who brutally murdered her innocent friends – murders that Binti witnessed. According to them they had a good reason, but it rang hollow to me that Binti would simply accept this. Things were wrapped up so, so neatly – the folks at Oomza apologized for what they did and peace was achieved, but there was no mention of the hundreds of young teenagers who were brutally killed for no reason.

I also wanted a bit more from this world; I had no sense of time or context. To be fair, this is a novella so the author has little page count to work with, and she did the best with what she had, but I was still left feeling quite confused. What exactly is an astrolabe? What is a harmonizer? What is the device Binti has that wards off the Meduse? I had so many questions that were left unanswered by the end.

I appreciate what this novella is and I love the diversity, but it just wasn’t for me. However, I’m definitely willing to check out the sequel at some point, since I hear the series gets better and better.

Book Review: Skein and Bone by V.H. Leslie

26088379Title: SKEIN AND BONE
Author: V.H. Leslie
Release Date: 2015
Pages: 290
Publisher: Undertow Publications
My Rating: ★★☆☆☆ (2/5)
Review on Goodreads

I didn’t like a single story in this collection.

Perhaps it was my mistake going in, thinking I was picking up a horror book, when instead I was actually reading weird fiction. There are few things in the world I hate more than weird fiction. And the stories in this collection were certainly weird.

Many of them feature flat characters who become completely obsessed with bizarre phenomenon or who are approaching the edges of madness in some way. The utter flatness of the characters would have been passable had the plots been intriguing, but most of the stories just seemed to meander from scene to scene, with little to connect them all together. Also, most of the male characters were completely detestable – I understand that this served to establish realism, but it also got quite tiring being in these characters’ heads.

Some stories seemed to have potential, appearing to build up to a satisfying conclusion, but instead culminate in frustrating ambiguity. I kept searching for some kind of conclusive answer but found nothing. This works sometimes, if the perhaps features compelling characters, but given that the characters here almost seemed to be stand-ins, it only served to further detract from the overall narrative. In the end, most of the stories felt choppy, uneven, and incomplete.

The only reason I didn’t give this one star is because the writing is decent, and I actually managed to get through the entire thing, even though it took me over a month. But again, maybe if weird fiction is your thing, you’ll like this collection. I understand the author is pretty prolific and this has been a generally well-received book, so it’s probably not objectively bad or anything, just really, really not my thing.